If you want to see a classic Mike Leigh film, don’t expect it of this biopic of John William Mallard Turner. It remains, however, a slow but beautiful film.
Every actor that you can name seems to have a part (and some you probably cannot) and every artist, fashionista and journalist of the relevant Victorian era including HMQ and Prince Albert also have parts, so there are a lot to go round. As to the parts relevant to Turner himself, they are principally women plus his father and finally his doctor.
Turner père is played by Paul Jesson, Turner himself by Timothy Spall. Both act pretty much without saying a full sentence, but they growl beautifully. Turner’s women, his ex-wife (?), his housekeeper and Mrs Booth are played by Ruth Sheen, Dorothy Anderson and Marion Bailey. Of those three, Mrs Booth gets the best clothes, the best lines and the best character. The housekeeper, Hannah Danby gets scruffier and dirtier and more horrible to look at in every scene and I would need a reminder as to what the legal relationship between her, Sarah Danby and the other girls – Turner’s daughters and grandchildren were. I imagine that Hannah and Sarah were sisters, but too more disparate people you could hardly imagine.
As to the walk on parts at the Royal Academy there was Constable, Sir John Soane, Benjamin Haydon, CR Leslie, David Roberts and a host of others, and eventually obviously John Ruskin and his father.
Of the locations, Margate was unrecognisable as you would expect since its modern manifestation hardly makes it conducive to a film about its pre-eminent glory; Penshurst was Penshurst in all its glory – and it has undergone a recent complete refurbishment so looked absolutely magnificent and the rest of the landscape could have been anywhere, though on one curious walk Turner appeared to have walked away from Margate towards Broadstairs to take a view of the Seven Sisters which is neither likely, nor possible? So that was a strange decision, Margate being on the East Coast and the white cliffs on the South!
Of the paintings there was a lot, for in the film is was a sort of reverse creation; the film produced the scene that was later captured by Turner, from the painting. For example, Turner and friends row past the Temeraire on the way to the yards, commenting on her fate, steam over sail, the numbers of tables that might be created from her oak and so on, then we see the painting we know and love being made. Sunsets and seascapes galore; and Turner standing by the side of the track to see a train surging towards him, a mass of steam and speed and then…
Do I think this was a good film? Honestly, no. It was beautiful to look at and there was some fine acting but I saw several much, much better films than this at the Festival.