JMW Turner is an unlikely subject for a film. The irascible painter led a secretive life, but Mike Leigh’s bio-pic has got critics enthusing, with Timothy Spall’s portrayal of the artist taking the best-actor award at the Cannes Festival.
Mr Turner tells the story of the last quarter century of his life. During the 1820s the artist was profoundly affected by the death of his father. Doted on by his stoical housekeeper – who he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually – he secretly takes up with a widowed landlady, living incognito with her in Chelsea. When Turner dies, the landlady discovers the shocking truth.
The film explores Turner’s relentless desire to understand weather effects – in one scene he has himself tied to the mast of a ship in a tempest in order to paint the snowstorm. Turner’s art made him wealthy, and though he was lorded by the critics, his radical later works confused many art patrons: Queen Victoria’s sentimental taste meant she loathed his paintings. In his final years the artist refused an offer of £100,000 from a millionaire who wants to buy all his work – Turner bequeathed his paintings to the nation.
The artist has become something of an icon for British films. Skyfall, the most recent Bond film, shows the secret agent sitting in the National Gallery, contemplating Turner’s most famous work: The Fighting Temeraire.