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Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is no oil painting

Timothy Spall plays the British painter Joseph Turner in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Mr Turner. Transmission Films

The work of art is that mysterious process that transforms pigment and canvas into an object of great beauty. Depicting that moment of creative inspiration has been a challenge for filmmakers since the first ribbon of film rattled its way past a camera lens. Is it possible to stand witness to significant acts of human imagination that resonate across the centuries?

Mike Leigh is the latest filmmaker to attempt to capture the essence of the creative process in his biopic on the English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, in his film Mr Turner.

Trailer for Mr Turner (2014).

There are some woeful attempts that should have provided salutary examples of what not to do. High on that list is Moulin Rouge, John Huston’s 1952 homage to French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In this film José Ferrer stumbles around the set on his knees playing the vertically challenged artist.

He manages to turn his studio into a gas chamber in a suicide attempt – but just as he is about to loose consciousness the artist is transfixed by the light playing across his unfinished canvas.

With brush in hand he throws open the windows, turns off the valve and dabs feverishly at the painting. The impulse to create was his salvation.

Another example is Carol Reed’s 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy with Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo, in turmoil about how to paint the Sistine Chapel.

After sleeping rough on a hillside he staggers around the rocks as the first rays of dawn pierce the sky and clouds mass together to create an image of God holding out his hand to touch the finger of a recumbent Adam and give him life.

Reed brings in the orchestra to add a soaring accompaniment to Heston’s voice-over reading from Genesis as the final clouds lock into place and flocks of birds stream into view. The creative impetus is God-given in Reed’s version of “great moments in art”.

It’s hard not to mention another Irving Stone novel brought to the screen a decade earlier by Vincente Minnelli. His 1956 film Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin, links creativity with madness forever in the popular imagination.

So what did Mike Leigh learn from these earlier examples, and the many more that Tracey Moffatt compiled together in her brilliantly witty 1999 video Artist, made with Gary Hillberg?

He certainly went to a great deal of trouble to avoid the clumsiness of an actor pretending to add a dab of colour onto an already completed painting. Timothy Spall was given two years of painting classes to ensure he looked the real thing when he scumbled, spat and blew paint onto the canvas.

Turner was renowned for his dashing and unconventional technique and his last minute brio in finishing a painting during Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, and Spall certainly looks the part of that pugnacious artist showing off shamelessly.

Indeed the recreation of Varnishing Day is one of the highlights of the film, where all the tensions and competitiveness of the selection and hanging is brilliantly evoked. The terse acknowledgment between Turner and his only serious rival John Constable says it all.

Their exchange, “Constable … Turner”, is followed by Turner’s audacious dab of red paint on his completed seascape to parody Constable’s addition of vermillion to his large landscape. All good stuff and funny too!

Nevertheless, Leigh was seduced by Carol Reed’s “clouds on the mountaintop” trope to explain how Turner was able to conjure up the most popular image in British art, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838.

It happened, presumably, while rowing around the Thames late one afternoon. Turner and his companions come across the old ship being tugged to Rotherhithe to be scrapped, and there, on a platter was the painting, already fully conceived with nothing more for the artist to do other than copy it down.

Apparently a similar happenstance explains Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, spied on an afternoon ramble. Only in his version of the apocryphal tale of Turner strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm to research Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, does Leigh come close to revealing the artist’s modus operandi.

Too long and very slow moving, Mr Turner does give us an insight into the cantankerous, misogynist who abused his servant, treated his wife and children badly, loved his dad and lived in happy domesticity with the comely Mrs Booth.

What it fails to do is shed light on the creative process or reveal anything that could help us understand how Turner was able to manufacture from his understanding, his knowledge and his skill, images that remain potent and powerful agents in shaping our lived experience.

Mr Turner will be released in Australian cinemas on December 26. Details here. Mr Turner will be released in the United States on December 19.

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