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Director: Mark Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire
Mark Leigh’s Oscar-nominated Mr Turner can appear disjointed at times, with episodes moving in and out of view with no real connection to the main story. There is one entire scene involving painter JMW Turner’s (Spall) father’s bad coughing spell and another of a woman with as deep an interest in the properties of light as him. However, stroke by stroke, the masterly Leigh brings forth the portrait of a painter in both how he went about his work, and his life. Like any painting, Mr Turner is also viewed best at some distance and at leisure, with some patience.
Boldly, Leigh also deals with the last 25 years of Turner’s life, a time marked not so much by recognition as by a gradual disillusionment, both his own and of others in him. As Turner first sets the tone for Romantic landscape painting, defined by startling light and stark clarity, and then veers more and more towards Impressionism, one can feel him weighed down by what he likes doing and what he feels he ought to be doing.
The death of his most ardent fan, his devoted father, leaves him lonesome. And then there is the constant voice of conscience around in the form of a broke painter, Hayden (Savage), who reviles successful painters like Turner with their fixed art forms.
Hidden behind a jowl, bushy eyebrows, a constant frown, and inarticulate grunts and growls, Spall also brings forth Turner’s inadequate relationships with the other humans around him. Be it an older mistress he has abandoned along with the two daughters he has with her, his domestic help who he sexually uses when needed, the sex workers he frequents, or his last mistress whom he actually seems to love.
Like with his contemporaries, his failings with his lovers also seem to bother, if not torment, Turner.
Leigh, who wrote as well as directed the film, brings forth the politics of the Royal Academy of the Arts and the cabal that decides who gets exhibited and where, the nature of royal patronage, and the pretentiousness of critics — including those who claim to speak for the traditionalists, and those vouching for the avant garde. In a delightful scene involving John Ruskin (McGuire), who would later become one of England’s finest art critics, there is a prolonged discussion on the virtues of warm climes for raspberries before the young gentleman shocks everybody, including Turner, by disparaging famed painter Claude Lorraine through a well-meaning monologue that makes little sense.
Apart from Spall, the performances that stand out are Atkinson’s, as Turner’s long-suffering and apparently ailing domestic help, who aches for his touch, however fleeting and devoid of meaning, and Bailey’s, as his last mistress Sophie Booth. She is the picture of efficiency compared to Turner’s disoriented lifestyle, and provides just the solid grounding he needs. McGuire has all of two scenes and walks away with both.
Leigh and his director of photography do a seamless job of translating paintings onto screen and vice-versa, with one flowing into the other, and the countryside appearing just as it would have to Turner on the long walks he is often seen taking. However, these do seem one too many when the film stretches way past 150 minutes. Long after Mr Turner has ended, you realise you can’t claim to understand the man known as the “painter of light” any better. But then, the point may be just that.