Mr Turner, the movie and the man.

I’m always a big fan of the longer movie.  I enjoy getting into a story I can get my teeth into and that doesn’t necessarily revolve around car chases and fast cutting shooting and fighting.  A small part of me also thinks that with the high prices at the cinema, that longer films give me a bit more value for money.

In the last week I have watched two long films.  The first was Interstellar which despite its name and premise I found to be distinctly unimpressive with often poor special effects and a predictable plot, so much so that I guessed the ending within a few minutes of the film starting.

I went into see Mr Turner just waiting for my faith to be restored in longer films.  The film Mr Turner is about one of the most gifted artists of all time and probably most people’s top two British artists, Joseph Mallard William Turner.

William Turner lived from 1775 to 1851 and is a giant in the name of art.  His early paintings were quite traditional featuring buildings and landscapes but Turner was fascinated by light and his later works became much less conventional. In fact there is an argument to say that Turner led to the Impressionist period of painting and indeed his work was much studied by artists such as Van Gogh and Monet in the early 20th century.

Turner was born into a very much working-class family, his father being a barber and wig maker whilst his mother was from a family of butchers.  At the age of 10, due to problems at home, the young Turner was sent to the small town of Brentford, now part of West London and it was at this young age that we know he started sketching and painting as he spent time in Oxfordshire and by the sea in Margate.

A View of the Archbishop's Palace in Lambeth

A View of the Archbishop’s Palace in Lambeth painted by William Turner at the age of 14.

Aged 14 he applied to The Royal Academy of Art and incredibly just one year later, his work was featured in an exhibition there.  By 1790 he was already creating waves by mastering the realm of marine painting, a theme which he would later become famous for.

Turner travelled extensively across England, France and the low countries and was particularly influenced by his stay in Venice.  Much of his work is dedicated to landscapes but frequently such painting include humans in the foreground as despite his complex and curmudgeon nature, he loved humanity but his artwork would often focus on the vulnerability of humans by the forces of nature, particularly the oceans.

His work became less detailed and instead focussed on light and luminosity and his fame spread throughout the world.  It’s widely reported than a rich art lover from New York purchased a Turner work without ever seeing it and when he set eyes on his expensive purchase he was unhappy at how indistinct the details of the painting were.  On hearing of this Turner told him that he specialised in indistinctness!

Staffa, Fibgal's Cave.  An old volcanic island off the SW coast of Scotland and most indistinct.

Staffa, Fibgal’s Cave. An old volcanic island off the SW coast of Scotland and most indistinct.

He generally refused selling off most of his work and instead bequeathed it to the nation.  He put it in his will that all his work had to be displayed together, preferably in a dedicated gallery but sadly that didn’t come to pass and a special Act of Parliament was created allowing his work to be displayed separately.  Now much of his work can be seen displayed together in the National Gallery and around the world.

The film Mr Turner is pretty much everything that Interstellar isn’t.  It is a cosy, literary film and very down to earth.  It follows Turner in the last 25 years of his life and I found it totally engrossing.  Victorian life is portrayed very accurately but not in the overly twee style that can happen.

The cinematography is incredible and the entire film is shot almost as if it were in a Turner painting.  The colours and palette are incredible as are the sets and costumes and the small budget even stretched to a wonderful CGI moment when Turner rows out to see the Fighting Temeraire which is one of my two favourite 19th century paintings.

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire – often said to be one of the two top paintings produced in the 19th Century.

The film is almost entirely devoid of any plot or narrative which a small section of viewers don’t seem to be able to get their heads round but to me it is a revelation as life doesn’t really have a plot and this film is more of a series of connected scenes which is probably what many of our lives are like.

Turner is portrayed by the truly wonderful Timothy Spall who I have been a fan of since the early 1980’s.  He is known to many international viewers for his part as Wormtail in Harry Potter but happily in Britain we get to see him all the time including in the current tv show The Blandings.   He portrays Turner has a complicated, grumpy and not entirely pleasant individual which to my surprise is exactly how he was in real life.  He is likeable but somehow it is hard to tally such an individual to the beautiful art he created but then again similar things happen today with actors and musicians.

The Burning Of The Houses Of Parliament

The Burning Of The Houses of Parliament for many a national disaster, for Turner a thing of beauty.

The film shows his close relationship with his father and how he refuses to acknowledge the two children he himself fathered with a mistress who scowls at him through flared nostrils.  He treats almost everyone with scorn should they interfere with his art and from time to time forces himself on the family servant.

However, he is also wonderfully eccentric and is a man of few words and somehow he comes over as very sympathetic.  Never has a film seen the leading character growl, tut and harrumph his way through a movie like this and Timothy Spall does so fantastically.  He looks and sounds every bit the part and importantly painted for 2 years in training for his part in the film.

We don’t get to see much of his painting process except for his passion and showmanship.  He can be loving and cruel, obsesses over a relatively minor personal debt and yet refuses large payments for his art.  William Turner is a man of many contradictions.

There is no or next to no profanity, action or sex in this film and it entirely feels like you are just living life with Turner.   There is a surprising amount of wit in the film though you sometimes have to be alert to catch it. I found myself laughing quite a few times through the movie.  Turner of course is an art genius but he doesn’t quite fit in with the artistic establishment and he is from the wrong class of people to feel at home with them or for him as a person to be accepted by them.

There are a number of wonderful scenes such as when he lets the rather camp critic Rushkin make a fool of himself by talking about subjects that are entirely irrelevant to try to impress everyone present and Turner simply inquiries about what sort of meat pie he prefers.

Constable and Turner

Constable and Turner admire each others work but have a strong rivalry. These viewings were important and artists would perfect their work until just minutes before the public arrived. Hundreds of paintings could be sold and such events were a major source of income for Victorian artists.

Of course in real life, Turner had great rivalry with possibly the other joint top British artist, John Constable.  In this film of few words, all that needs to be said of this rivalry is said by the way the two characters exchange pleasantries, “Turner…. Constable”.  All hell breaks loose when Turner apparently ruins his own masterpiece which is hanging next to Constable by adding a large bright blob of red paint.  Constable has no patience at all with the charisma and show-boating of Turner and storms off in disgust that his own painting has been sabotaged.  Turner soaks up all the attention before finally returning and retools the blob into a harbour buoy.

As Turner gets older, incredibly he becomes more grumpy and more eccentric.  He is lonely and finds solace with the landlady of his property, Mrs Booth  in Margate which sitting by the sea gives him all the marine scenes he could ever wish for.  In fact so much into his art is Turner that ties himself to the mast of a sailing ship during a snow storm to get the feeling of what it is like.

Turner gets on with the landlady because she doesn’t know who he is or care how famous or rich he might be.  The film takes the rare step of having something of a romance between these two elderly characters which I find refreshing.

Throughout the film you get the feeling that Turner is both fascinated by and slightly fearful of technology or perhaps mournful of the passing of the old ways.  He is fascinated by prisms and light, curious about cameras but angry that he realises they will have major repercussions on his profession.    He obviously thinks of the juxtaposition of the old with the new for his famous painting of the Fighting Temerarie, the old heroic sailing ship that fought at Trafalgar being towed to the breakers by a steam-powered vessel.  A similar feeling can be had for Rain, Steam and Speed which highlights a locomotive crossing a bridge as a tiny boat nestles in the water beneath.

Rain, Steam and Speed.  The Great Western Railway.

Rain, Steam and Speed. The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner

He is much aggrieved that many former friends and admirers dislike his move towards indistinctness and Impressionism, even Queen Victoria dislikes it but Turner cares not one jot.  After years of trying to get people to buy his work, when he is very successful in his later years, he is much less bothered about selling any of them and takes the stance of art for arts sake.

As Mr Turner gets older, his health suffers and he grows more distant from his family and friends whilst taking up residence in west London with his landlady friend.  He keeps his love of art to the very end, rushing out of his death-bed to paint a drowned lady on the harbour steps and when his doctor gives him the bad news Turner says something along the lines of “I suggest Sir that you go down those steps and avail yourself upon my wife to have a large glass of Sherry before returning to this room to give me a different prognosis”.  The Doctor replies that he shall not, Turner grumbles loudly under his breath.

Turner up before the dawn.

Turner up before the dawn.

His final words in the film as in life were “The Sun is God”, no doubt in reference to his love of light and the fact he would be up before dawn every morning to catch the morning light at its purest.

I was sure that I would like a film about this incredible artist and I freely admit thinking that it would be a more traditional plot driven film but the fact that it wasn’t made it all the better to me.  Mr Turner is full of splendid performances particularly from Timothy Spall as Turner but the costumes, sets and particularly the Turner-esque palette make it a beautiful film to watch and the flowery conversations scattered with unexpected humour, grunts and all make it a wonderful film and I could spend a lifetime watching it.

Turner himself would most likely give a grunt of approval before throwing a chair at the door so we leave him in peace to do what he did best.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner




About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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12 Responses to Mr Turner, the movie and the man.

  1. Rosemarie says:

    I loved this post and this review. I shall definitely have to see Mr. Turner. I had already decided that I would not go to Interstellar. I am not a fan of pyrotechnics, and it really appeared to me that a simplistic plot was built around big computer special effects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this review. Interstellar felt such a let down for several reasons not least the predictability of it all but for key choices in how they made the film and somehow, maybe due to the length, it came off looking cheap to me.

      Mr Turner has no plot but is very immersive. Timothy Spall has won numerous awards in Europe for this film as he is perfect for it but I doubt he will be so successful at The Baftas or Oscars as its a little unconventional.

      I think the movie comes out on December 19th for you. Let me know how you like it. It is a must see film at the cinema as it is so beautiful to look at that a v screen wouldn’t do it justice.


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  4. Wonderfully written in that it has made me feel a more urgent need to see this film.


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