J.M.W. Turner was an artist ahead of his time. He painted mostly landscapes and seascapes, but though he was painting in the early 1800s, he prefigured impressionism, and toward the end of his life, when he saw the advent of photography, he took a step toward what me might consider modern art.
He was also quite a character, a grunting bear of a man, eccentric and roguish. This is explore in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the artist.
A film about a painter is a tricky thing. Like films about writers, you just can’t show a man doing the job, because that gets a little boring. We do see Spall using the brush occasionally (I found it interesting that he holds the brush near its end, away from the bristles–when I painted, I held it much closer to the bristles to get better control) but mostly we follow him through his life outside the studio. At least the filmmakers, due to time more than anything else, are able to use his actual works, unlike the 2000 film Pollock.
The story picks up at Turner’s height of fame. His beloved father (Paul Jesson) works for him, as does a devoted maid (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he uses for sex every now and then. He seems to have no lack of money, and he’s even recognized, necessitating him to take false names when he travels. He has two adult daughters from a previous liaison, and the mother of those girls visits him to upbraid him.
After his father dies, he starts an emotional slide. He cohabitates with a lovely widow who runs a boarding house in Margate (Marion Bailey) and deals with the various members of the Royal Academy, as well as a painter (Martin Savage) who is not in the Academy but rails against them for not spotting his genius. When his paintings become more and more abstract, he finds himself mocked, and even Queen Victoria piles on, calling one painting “vile.”
This is all very well and good, but I found something missing in Mr. Turner. It’s not the photography-Dick Pope was deservedly Oscar-nominated, as he uses his camera much as Turner used his brush. The scenes that show Turner standing in a field, making sketches, are astonishingly beautiful. Turner went to great lengths to get the right view–he even had himself lashed to a mast so he could see a storm at sea.
I think what’s missing is a general sense of purpose. The plot of Mr. Turner is very episodic, and judging by what I’ve read, very faithful to history. Spall creates a very vivid character, what with the grunts and tics of the man, and his showing charm when he is really feeling contempt, but I couldn’t quite grasp what Leigh was trying to say. The conflict doesn’t amount to much–Turner was accepted into the Academy as a teenager, and until the very end no one doubted his genius. We see a young John Ruskin, one of the great art critics of the period, but he was a Turner supporter. When Turner applies a blob of red paint to one of his paintings hanging at the Academy, it turns out to be something of a ruse.
The film also has a problem of time. No dates are given. The film, based on my research, runs from 1829 to his death in 1851, but we do not get a good sense of time passing. This means that the love that Atkinson feels for him (along with her ever expanding psoriasis) doesn’t have the full effect.
I will also admit to nodding off a few times. The film is well over two hours long as is not exactly bristling with activity.
I do give the films a thumbs up do to Spall’s performance and Pope’s photography. It’s also a wonderful education on art, which we don’t often see at the movie theater.
My grade for Mr. Turner: B-.