Once I knew a very refined elderly man in Toorak who refused to go to see the film Amadeus. He worshipped Mozart and he did not want to see that lavatory humour splashed across the screen. For the first hour of Mr Turner, I was wondering if I should have followed this example, but the movie came to life, and started to carry the audience with its hero, thanks to two women, his maid and his later common law wife. Both of these parts looked straight out of Dickens – the sets and costumes are uniformly excellent – and each was played inch perfect. The Poms are so good at this on stage and screen – they bat right down the order.
Turner comes to life with his new love. For some reason the director wanted to drive us to distraction in a very long movie with two of the most irritating whingers ever born, the ex-wife and a failed painter. Foreplay may not be the hero’s strong suit, but the courtship scene is affecting and involving. We knew that he cared for his father, but we wondered otherwise if his only outlet was with the paint brush. Although Turner snorts a lot, and can be abrupt, he gets on with the Academy like one of the boys in the locker room at the golf club. I was surprised at his easy acceptance – the son of a barber with a gruff South London accent. We get a glimpse at some of the great paintings – there is a real frissson when a few of them in a boat see the fighting Temeraire being towed toward them by that black steam boat. Ruskin gets a family backhander, which is not unjust for the most over-rated commentator since Cicero.
For me, Turner is right up there with El Greco as a mould-breaker in painting. I doubt whether the film will convey this wonderment to all, but in one of two beautiful scenes involving a daguerreotype, Turner asks why the camera cannot show colour. When he is told that this is a mystery, he replies, softly, long may it remain so. We have seen an experiment on colour with a prism, but the mystery of art is inviolable. The film is gorgeously apparelled on the screen. I did not like the music, but others, I gather, do. At least it is not that Muzak we normally get. This is a film of substance about a genius.