An exploration of the final 25 years in the life of the great, eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner. The film earned Timothy Spall a best actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

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Timothy Spall paints a vivid picture of a gruff master

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Timothy Spall is a grunting, squinting, po-faced force of nature in Mike Leigh’s surprising and charming biography of Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Mr Turner.

Spall gives the performance of his career as the eccentric artist whose fortunes rise and fall over the final quarter-century of his life. His full-bodied characterisation is both empathetic and off-putting; he's like a blubbering Dickensian Gruffalo yearning for the best of times.

Turner's painterly impressions of Flemish plains and English seascapes are intellectual hot property, so he has the demeanour and balance sheet of a celebrated creative eccentric.  He walks the halls of the Royal Academy of Art like he owns the place, name checking and winding up his blowhard contemporaries.

In his personal life, he responds to his urges in a similar manner, whether that’s bonking his scurvy-scabbed housemaid (Dorothy Atkinson), or sketching the contours of bosomy prostitutes. Though he stonewalls an aggrieved ex (Ruth Sheen) and children, he ends up courting a kindly widow (Marion Bailey), and the two share a joyous, bawdy love.

Leigh’s script is witty but sparing: Spall's phlegmy grunts snare most of the best ‘lines’. 

Cinematographer Dick Pope‘s lensing is masterful. A tracking shot that binds Turner to his beloved landscape makes for a beautiful character reveal. Elsewhere, he nails the ‘spit take’ when Turner’s own globules serve as his paint thinner, and there’s a weird shocking beauty in the sight of a decapitated pig’s head getting a shave.

Watch 'Mr. Turner' at SBS On Demand