Caught in the light

This is my review of Mr. Turner (Two-Disc Special Edition) [DVD] [2014].

We are introduced to Mr Turner as a middle-aged man, with only hints of his past life as the talented son of a Cockney barber, or his rise to fame as a painter entertained by aristocrats and displayed at the Royal Academy. Nor is there any clear explanation of his messy personal life, with inconvenient visits from a shrewish ex-mistress, justifiably angry over his neglect of her and their two daughters, one now with a child of her own.

Timothy Spall portrays Turner as eccentric and boorish, yet capable of deep affection as shown to the jolly old father who mixes his paints and makes up picture frames, in between shopping for a pig's head in the local market. Perhaps Turner's misogyny, also suggested by the casual sexual exploitation of his downtrodden and doting servant Hannah, stems from the trauma of having a schizophrenic mother carted off to Bedlam when he was a small boy. However, painting is not the sole channel of his sensitivity and vision: he can be moved to tears by Dido's Lament, and, admittedly in a drunken haze, shows empathy for poor Effie, the oppressed wife of Ruskin, portrayed here as a ghastly prig whom Turner delights us by taking down a peg or two.

Although we are shown Turner ageing, pained to hear the public turning against his later more abstract works, and finding solace in a secretive relationship with the Widow Booth, this film is a series of scenes which combine to form a vivid impression not only of Turner as a man but also of early nineteenth century life. The film's attention to period detail is impressive with the inclusion of a myriad of characters who may appear only in passing. It is like being a fly on the wall, or bird in flight, observing Turner silhouetted against the kind of sunset light which endlessly fascinated him, leaning on the rail of a ferry bound for Margate, weaving his way along narrow crowded quays to Mrs Booths' lodging, greeting other great painters at the Royal Academy or being rowed towards the Temeraire as friends joke over the likelihood of his painting it: "I shall cogitate upon it," he drawls.

We see Turner's insatiable curiosity as when he visits a photographer for the first time, quizzing the supercilious man who mistakes him initially for an ignoramus. Or when, showing a respect for women when they demonstrate talent, he invites a natural philosopher home to demonstrate how nails may be magnetized by the colours of the spectrum – at the forefront of scientific thinking at the time.

Most scenes are low-key, often quirky yet revealing, such as Turner being pestered for money by an unsuccessful painter, or the pails set round his domestic display room to catch the drips of rainwater through the ceiling. There are also some powerful dramatic scenes, as when Turner rejects a wealthy businessman's offer to buy up his works for a vast sum, since he has resolved to leave them to the nation to be viewed "gratis". Sadly, they were not to be retained in one place as he had hoped.

On reflection, I decided this is an outstanding film which makes one think about Turner as a man, flawed and complex, and want to find out more about him and his times. Yet, the massive hyping made me expect to be impressed, so that some of the earlier scenes, such as the improbably atrocious music at an aristocratic soirée were a disappointment.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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