The opening three shots of Mike Leigh's enthralling study of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner contain all of the elements that make it such a masterly portrait of the artist: in the first, in the shadow of a windmill, two Dutch milkmaids walk towards us, then out of frame, leaving our gaze on a silhouetted figure standing in an uncut meadow. The landscape, needless to say, might have been dressed by Turner.
The next two shots take us closer in, eventually on to the face of the artist himself. It is contorted with effort, as if appalled by the impossibility of the task of bringing reality to life on the canvas.
That Turner did so, and did so with miraculous intensity, is a matter of record. Pleasingly, Leigh has achieved a similar miracle with his film. More than any of the genre that I can recall (Maurice Pialat's exquisite, limpid Van Gogh and Ed Harris' brilliant Pollock are possible honourable exceptions), Mr Turner, thanks in large part to Spall's titanic title-role performance manages to externalise the mind of the artist with a persuasive, sometimes ferocious intensity.
The physicality of Spall's Turner - he gurns and belches and splutters and grumbles - is almost overwhelming.
The famous self-portrait is of a 24-year-old but the characterisation (the film concerns itself with the last 28 of his 76 years of life) accords with contemporary descriptions of him as uncouth and slovenly.
Yet this is a film that seeks to find the pulse of Turner rather than paint a pretty biographical portrait.
In one crucial scene, Leigh brings the painter face-to-face with John Constable - the two titans of romantic landscape were fierce rivals - and records the electrifying moment when Turner in an act of apparent self-sabotage, stabs a splodge of red on his own canvas.
His intentions don't become clear until later and Leigh plays it as it must have been: a calculated slight to Constable's lambent, inviting style by the man who sought to capture the raging power of the elements.
The moment is a metaphor for Leigh's own artistic intentions. He wants to cut to the heart, not stay skin-deep. He adopts an episodic style that seems jerky if you don't surrender to it and accept that it reveals much more about all its characters than any exhaustive box-ticking chronology would have.
The dialogue, Dickensian and slightly antic, heightens the atmosphere, and the cinematography by longtime Leigh collaborator Dick Pope is sublime: at one point he dissolves from brushed oils to chalk cliffs with apparent seamlessness.
For all that it documents a life of restless raging, this is a remarkably - and deceptively - quiet film. Unlike the gritty expressionistic tragicomedies that made him famous, it's closest in tone to 1999's Topsy Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan.
Like that film, it is by turns funny, tragic and savage, but the strongest sense both leave us with is one of wistful mourning. It's not easy being an artist.
Mr Turner Cast:
Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire, Ruth Sheen, David Horovitch, Karl Johnson
Mike Leigh Running time: 150 mins
M (sex scenes)
Enthralling, savage and often very funny.
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