Just as Grace de Monaco does a great job of selling the French Riviera, Mr Turner makes 19th century England look like a place worth visiting. If NASA admitted it had working time machines and made them available to us all, a popular destination this summer would be Margate circa 1840.
Asked to name a famous painter of the period many of us could name JMW Turner, although maybe not be fully confident what those initials stood for*. There's a reason for his continuing fame – however good his paintings are, Turner's greatest masterstroke remains bequeathing his work to the state. Whilst the Tate has a large collection of his paintings there is no chance of him being forgotten, which gives a ready market for works about his life.
We meet Turner when he is already middle-aged and successful, able to joke with the president of the Royal Academy and lend money to struggling colleagues. Turner is no paragon of virtue and Timothy Spall plays him as a blustering brute, taking advantage of his maid and taking no interest in his daughters who live apart with their mother. He is expressive in all he does, his fingers behind his back showing his agitation even when we can't see his face. Dorothy Atkinson excels as Hannah who has looked after Turner and his father for years. A simple woman, she accepts Turner's occasional embraces, hoping for more and constantly being disappointed.
Mr Turner is visually attractive, cinematographer Dick Pope learning from Turner's own palette in his own colouring decisions. Tales from Turner's life are re-enacted – most famously when he lashed himself to a ship's mast to better experience a storm at sea. We also see his Varnishing Day re-paintings at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition and his sighting of the Fighting Temeraire that inspired the famous painting.
In his paintings Turner aimed for honesty. In his life he didn't. He ran two seperate households and a third establishment of children and their mother. He lived in a time when he could pretend to be Mr Booth in Margate and Chelsea and Mr Turner at home with his canvas-stretching father, a lifestyle he would struggle to lead today. In other respects though he is a modern man, embracing pseudo-science and technology, until – with the daguerreotype – it comes too close to affecting his own livelihood.
The most memorable feature of Spall's Turner is – and this can't be said about many characters – his grunt. As far as I know Turner biographies aren't full of him grunting and growling. Sir John Soane's diaries don't record 'That Turner fellow is nice enough but I wish he'd stop grunting.' Nevertheless here Turner speaks in a strange mix of high-flying language and grunting. As grunts go they are surprisingly articulate, but given the power of film Turner will now be unfairly labelled as the artist who grunted.
Yesterday's Grace de Monaco fell on its lack of interest for anyone outside of aficionados of Monaco history. It is easier to praise Mr Turner as it is based on an English fine art hero, but it will struggle in a similar way to keep the attention – for its two and a half hours – of people not interested in his painting. The screenplay lacks momentum but shows that character flaws need not stop genius and may even be a necessary part of its make up.
Spall's performance is engrossing and the supporting cast of artists and acquaintances make a film that is of interest to anyone who wants to discover more of the background to the famous artist's work.
Rating: THREE STARS
*Joseph Mallord William