Joseph Mallord William Turner was probably the second-best English painter ever. (The best, he said modestly, was that amazing genius John Varley, 1778-1842.) (I was going to let that little joke stand, but then I looked up Mr. Varley on Wiki. I knew he was a competent painter of landscapes, but I hadn’t realized that his life was almost exactly contemporary with JMW Turner: 1775 to 1851. And he was not qualified to hand Bill Turner his brushes.)
I’m a little conflicted about this movie. I was not surprised to find at Metacritic that it’s a love/hate film. Mostly 10s and 1s. Hated it! The most boring movie ever! I am not completely unsympathetic to that opinion. I can see that some people could experience it all as literally being as boring as watching paint dry! At two and a half hours, I have to say it is too long. The last half hour or more is taken up with Turner slowly dying of some terrible lung condition. (He was a lifelong and heavy snuff dipper, something not shown here. I wonder why not?) No fun to watch. The facts of his life seem to be accurate, though we have no way of knowing if he was actually as piggish with his adoring maid of forty years as shown here. He uses her like humping a sheep, never a word spoken. No question he was unfair with her but, again as shown here, he wasn’t all that good about people, including his own family.
And the movie is a series of scenes, which is all they could really do because, frankly, his life didn’t lend itself to drama. He was born working-class, a prodigy, accepted as a master instantly, no story of struggle to gain a place in the art world. This story shows him falling out of favor because Queen Vicky was overheard to say his paintings stunk up the place. Naturally, everyone instantly decided his paintings were incomprehensible shit, too. Maybe she did say that (it’s the kind of scene that feels a bit too easy to me), but while that was happening he was becoming a huge influence on a bunch of crazy, unknown French kids with names like Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, and Manet. You know, the Impressionists. He paved the way for them with his astonishing scenes of action and movement and light. And incredibly, he never took his easel out into the world. He sketched, very rapidly, what he wanted to paint, and then went to his studio and had to remember the colors he saw. Wow.
Anyway, I was finally won over by several things, most important of which is Timothy Spall’s performance. Spall is an actor who is reliably terrific in small parts, and if given the chance, can easily nail a starring role, as he does here and did in The Last Hangman. He’s a bit of a gargoyle, with no chin and awful British dentition, nobody’s choice for a leading man. Guys like that have to carve out a living bringing secondary characters to life, and he is great at it. I first noticed him as the Beadle Bamford in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He’s been in a lot of good stuff since then. This role was surely a plum for him, and he devours it. He won Best Actor at Cannes.
The second thing is the cinematography, which is stunning. The camera puts him into the settings he made famous in his paintings, and captures his fascination with the various kinds of light. Here is a guy who was thirty or forty years ahead of his time. We see him sketching, and later we see the finished result. It is a visual feast. It is also an excellent recreation of Victorian life, with a lot of stuffy conversations, including an extended scene of John Ruskin bloviating his incomprehensible and stupid opinions. That was really quite funny.