On the Cusp of Modernity
Robert Henderson enjoys Timothy Spall as Turner
Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)
Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby
Paul Jesson as William Turner
Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth
Ruth Sheen as Sarah Danby
Sandy Foster as Evalina Dupois –
Martin Savage as Benjamin Haydon
Director Mike Leigh
This is a curate’s egg of a film. At its centre lies a commanding performance by Timothy Spall as Turner in the last quarter century of his life. The film is worth watching for that reason alone, for Spall is one of those rare actors who cannot deliver a poor performance; he does not have it in him. Here he has a marvellously varied collection of snorts and grunts to express his feelings to add to his ever-present virtue as an actor of seeming to be someone fully engaged with the rest of humanity. (Even Spall’s portrayal of Britain’s longest serving hangman Albert Pierrepoint managed to make him curiously sympathetic.)
There are also first rate supporting performances by Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper Hannah Danby, who is in love with and sexually exploited by Turner, and Marion Bailey as a boarding house keeper Turner meets on his regular trips to Margate and eventually takes to London where he surreptitiously sets up home with her.
With the exception of Paul Jesson as Turner’s father (an unremarkable performance) and Martin Savage as a fellow artist Benjamin Haydon who was incessantly whining about how his career was being sabotaged by the professional jealousy of other artists whilst he attempted to borrow money (something which added nothing of importance to the story of Turner’s life) , the rest of the cast have so little screen time that they do not have a chance to develop their parts beyond the perfunctory .
But…but…. there are serious weaknesses. First, it tries to cover far too much ground with seemingly every incident publicly known about Turner in his later life requiring a nod of acknowledgement by the film. It smacks of the completest mania of the collector. The result is that characters (over 80 actors are credited in the official cast list) come and go without any proper explanation of who they are and what their significance is for Turner. For example, his two illegitimate daughters and their mother appear briefly at the beginning and near the end without proper explanation of exactly who they are or why Turner is so very cold towards them.
The second weakness is the implied assumption by the film that its audience would have a good grasp of British artistic history during the period. The portrayal of artistic relations between Royal Academicians and Turner will be bewildering for most people who see the film and simply clutter up the narrative.
Take Turner’s relationship with John Constable. Constable did not publicly slate Turner but he was jealous of him and like many others privately dismissed his work as just insubstantial fireworks playing with the depiction of light. In 1832 at the Royal Academy’s annual show Constable and Turner had paintings hung side by side. Constable’s painting was The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a large colourful canvas that had been a Herculean fifteen years in the composition. Turner’s painting entitled Helvoetsluys was a rather subdued affair of Dutch ships.
Constable was putting the finishing touches to his painting using vermillion to paint the flags on barges in in his painting. Turner came into the room and placed a daub of scarlet paint in the grey sea of his painting. He then left to return the next day (when the paint was still wet) and shaped the scarlet daub on his painting into a buoy. Constable took this as taking a rise out of his rather colourful and long time in the making The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and loudly complained that Turner ‘ has been here and fired a gun.’ In the film this episode takes place rapidly with no explanation of why Constable should have been so annoyed.
To the poorly developed professional relationships can be added the references to Turner’s work both individually and generally. For those with some familiarity with his work, or at least his most famous paintings, a scene, beautifully realised, with Turner in a boat watching a steam tug towing a warship which had seen duty at Trafalgar would have immediately evoked Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire. But to someone who had little or no knowledge of Turner the scene would have seemed random and of little importance. The same incomprehension would have been felt by those ignorant of Turner when he watches a train rush by on the new-fangled railways and the idea of his Rain, Steam and Speed is born.
Then there was for me the most exquisitely enjoyable moment in the film. This was the look of profound contempt which crossed Spall’s face (accompanied by a particularly meaningful snort) when he sees some pre-Raphaelite paintings. But to appreciate the moment the viewer had to understand that the contempt was result of Turner and the pre-Raphaelites being artistic polar opposites: Turner was concerned with overall effect and the play of light in particular: the pre-Raphaelite’s were fixated with representing the world in almost photographic detail. Spall’s magnificent contempt is born of the man who sees further and farther than others and sardonically views the work of lesser beings who are trapped in their immediate surroundings.
Irritating as all that unnecessary event counting was, there were plenty of moments of humour which anyone could understand, many simply deriving from the interplay with Spall’s personality with others, but with a few set pieces in which other characters provided the humour such as a wickedly savage depiction of a young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) performing with sublimely unselfconscious pretension. Even if someone did not have a clue about who Ruskin was they could still find the portrayal very amusing.
A running theme throughout the film is an England on the brink of modernity. At the start of the film Turner makes his regular trips from London to Margate on the Kent coast by ship because that is the fastest means of making a trip of perhaps sixty miles. By the end of the film he is catching a train.
A lady scientist visits him and shows him how a metal pin can be magnetised by fragmenting light by passing it through a prism to produce the colours of the rainbow some of which magnetise negatively and some positively.
Late in the film we see Turner having his photograph taken using an early photographic system called a Daguerreotype. Turner quizzes the photographer about how things are done in this new means of representing things whilst inwardly fretting that photography will be the nemesis of the artist. He sighs with relief when the photographer tells him that colour photographs are nowhere on the horizon.
This film could have been much tauter than it is if the director had made it less cluttered with characters and specific events. But when all is said and done Spall’s performance rescues it from a disjointed banality. Go and see it to watch a master actor in action in a role, which fits him like a glove.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic