Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

We thank library patron George de Verges for submitting this film review.

Mr. Turner, the movie by Michael Leigh with Timothy Spall as the bluff and enigmatic painter, features seascapes and vistas known to anyone who has studied a catalog of his work. To confirm the biographical details of his life as found in the film, I re-read Peter Ackroyd’s J.M.W. Turner (available at Hamon), and found the details generally accurate or at least within the range of scholarly dispute.

The film does not try to explain and justify the actions of Turner toward those around him. If anything, the film portrayed Turner as more callous toward his former common-law wife, Sarah Danby, than the record may require. The film has no interest in explaining his attitudes or actions; the movie proceeds with a series of short scenes, covering his life at his artistic heights, each full of life and illustrating one moment of the life of a complex man.

The film is full of moments of the famous men and women around Turner: John Ruskin (in two scenes that may diminish the genius he possessed but which are among the most amusing), Lord Egremont (one of his patrons), the other painters of the Royal Academy, and his less-admiring royal patrons. Turner is placed fully into his time and place, but without tedious exposition and without the conscious and unconscious anachronistic moments we might expect from Steven Spielberg, for instance. In all these scenes, one feels the strength and intensity of the gaze of Turner as he consumes each moment. One well-designed scene showing a group of artists from the Academy watching the Fighting Temeraire, one of the Royal Navy’s storied but outdated warships, being towed by a steamer to the scrapyard. One artist suggests to Turner that the scene might be an appropriate one for him, with Turner replying that he would “cogitate upon it.” This moment is full of charm, but also vibrant light and color, and the sense that Turner took no cues from others, but acted on his own intuitions and instincts and had been surreptitiously studying the ship.

The film may have left the movie theaters of Dallas, but it will remain one of the few recent studies of an artist that succeeds in drawing us into the mind and the times of one painter. It is a picture that should be preceded and followed with a study of the life and art of its subject.