Mr Turner opens with a gorgeous shot of windmills in Holland with our eponymous hero looking at the yellow light, taking it all in, the better to express it on canvas. Unfortunately, apart from a few more Tarkovsky-like moments of cinematography from Dick Pope, the gorgeousness gives way to Timothy Spall’s ungorgeous jowly countenance and as gnarly a set of teeth as you will see in 2014. And that growl, deployed almost randomly, starts off as irritating but soon becomes unbearable.
Nor is Turner a particularly pleasant man – in fact, he’s a particularly unpleasant man, arrogant, aloof and with a dismal attitude towards women, even for his time (the early, hypocritical years of the 19th century). I found myself longing for the movie to finish so I could get away from a man I wouldn’t choose to spend two minutes with, never mind a ludicrously stretched out two and a half hours.
Of course, many great artists were appalling individuals (step forward Amedeo Modigliani) and JMW Turner was undoubtedly a genius as a painter, anticipating impressionism both in technique and its subject matter of the emerging modern world. Instead of this being made clear (surely three of those 150 minutes could have been spared) we get little help in locating Turner within art history beyond a bit of sniping at John Constable and some frankly unbelievable scenes (not helped by bad CGI) where he is suddenly inspired to paint the celebrated The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed etc.
There’s little too that explains Turner’s attraction to middle-aged women from drawn from well below his social station and a curious incident with a beautiful 22 year-old prostitute in which he seemed to have some kind of seizure at the mere sight of her in repose, left me none the wiser as to its significance.
I took my seat knowing that Turner was a great artist who had a thing for working class women and who left his paintings to the nation in a bequest that was only made good a century or more after his death with the opening of the Clore Gallery. I left my seat knowing no more.