It's a high risk strategy indeed, but thanks to the sheer eccentricity of Spall's Turner, one that just about works. But it's a close run thing. A two hour exploration of quirkiness and oddity in less skilled hands might have become tedious, but Leigh and Spall manage to create just about enough interest in their character to sustain interest.
It starts off a litte tentatively, not least as viewers are obliged to tune into Spall's rather earthy west country drawl of an accent. The film thereafter takes us deep into the centre of Turner's unconventional life where he lives with housekeeper Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) a seemingly willing participant to the artist's somewhat random sexual forays.
There's also an estranged wife and two daughters whom appear fleetingly in a strand of the film which is never satisfactorily developed. The audience knows little if nothing at all about the circumstances of the estrangement and can only wonder why the artist seems to have little or no interest in the lives of his daughters.
In order to facilitate his seascapes, Turner takes to staying at a lodging house in Margate where he develops a relationship with the landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). It's a midlife affair for the artist, a last hurrah as his health slowly declines and one that is played out with some delicacy by the cast. At this stage of the film we have been with Turner for several years although it has to be said the film's timescale is never that clear.
There are one or two other unsatisfactory strands such a when the artist is present at a theatre show in which his work appears to be mocked. Turner is appalled and the audience must wonder at this juncture if the great artist's star was waning towards the end of his life. Strangely, it's another aspect of the man's life that is never developed. Did Turner go out of fashion? If so, how did this effect him? We never get to know. Somehow the term 'biopic' doesn't feel right for this film, yet that's what it undoubtedly is.
It's certainly remarkable that given the loose strands, lack of central narrative and with it an almost palpable dearth of suspense, Mr Turner, perhaps in spite of itself, turns out to be a very watchable film and one that is a very welcome antidote to high-octane, plot-driven blockbuster fare so prevalant in today's cinemas.
There are no car chases, sub-machine guns, cartoon villians, blandly-beautiful heroines nor any chiselled-jawed heros in this film, all of which adds up to a very refreshing change. There is however a quite ludicrous portrayal of Victorian intellectual colussus John Ruskin, who, for reasons best known to the producers, is portrayed as a high-camp buffoon. Very odd.
Overall Mr Turner is an intelligently crafted piece of cinematogrpahy and one that fully immerses the viewer into the life of a very remarkable man. The performances are all top notch and the ambience of the era is captured admirably. One can't help but feel that in a world of Ikea replicas, Mr Turner is a bespoke piece of solid English oak furniture.