Wanting to love it was not enough; Mr Turner just didn’t quite do it for me. Mike Leigh’s new film about JW Turner proves that looking intriguing and beautiful isn’t enough. The film is blessed with splendid albeit often self-conscious photography and some fine acting.
Timothy Spall’s title role performance is neither winning nor appealing but it is convincing so much so that one now can’t imagine Turner any other way. Dorothy Atkinson is outstanding as his ill-used maid and Marion Bailey gives the film’s only performance of warmth and charm as Mrs Booth, the later love in his life. But the film, which is unnecessarily long, has a fatal lack of narrative clarity; too often we are given insufficient clues as to the identity of characters and the significance of events. Worse, it failed to add to my appreciation of his painting, either in its impact or its variety.
Turner was a romantic but a modernist. He pointed the way to impressionism and surrealism, all of which is barely alluded to in a film that assumes too much prior knowledge. Nevertheless, for a film I didn’t enjoy all that much at the time, I’m surprised to have not stopped thinking about it and to be looking at things differently.
For instance, sailing into Darling Harbour the other day, I wondered what Turner, as a maritime painter, would make of Barangaroo: its location, its scale, its ambition, its modernity. I think he might be bowled over by it just as I imagine he would be by the modern Thames South Bank.
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