Thursday, January 22, 2015

'Mr Turner,' a triumph for director Mike Leigh and actor Timothy Spall

 If you like biographical movies about artists to be "inspiring" and your vision of the late 18th/early 19th century decorous and mannered, Mike Leigh's film on J. M. W. Turner is not the movie for you. Turner was not a gentleman but he was a genius, possibly the greatest landscape painter than England has produced. 

 Some have found the film boring. With all due respect, I would suggest that their attention span and ability to follow a quiet movie has been destroyed by too many blockbusters with ear splitting music and enormous special effects. Most of the film consists of Turner doing what artists do - walking, watching, sketching, thinking, working. It's the real drama of a working artist, not the artificial drama of Hollywood.

 The son of a barber and a mother who was put away as a "lunatic," Turner didn't smooth down his rough edges and Leigh does not flinch from portraying the human damage his selfish, art-obsessed behavior created. Timothy Spall embodies the great early-19th-century seascape painter J.M.W. Turner as he was described by his first biographer, G. R Leslie, " "short and stout and with a sturdy, sailor-like appearance. There was nothing elegant in his appearance." He was (and is portrayed as) businesslike in his dealings with clients and a tireless worker. He produced over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 paper works

 The film opens with a long shot of the Dutch landscape, cuts to two women walking along a canal and over to Turner, sketching. The film follows him into the busy world of London where he lives with his elderly father (Paul Jesson) and a bashful housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson). Then he's off to Margate or one of the homes of an aristocratic patron or the Royal Academy where he's full of amiable cheer with some of his fellow artists combined with arrogant contempt for some of them. In one scene Turner snubs the artist Constable, who working next to him on a canvas involving much red. Turner ridicules him in a well-documented incident by adding a bright red buoy to the landscape, a blob of carmine carelessly stuck on the canvas with his thumb and worked in by hand.

 Leigh does not flinch in portraying Turner's relationships with women - as cruel and casual as any in that era.  His poor housekeeper, mutely adoring, becomes more and more consumed with eczema and loneliness.  Yet, he never kicked her out, even though she was so eaten up with eczema that she had to wear a veil and was a terrible house keeper to boot. From a biography on him, I found out that he left her several drawings and 600 pounds in his will, a very significant sum for the time.

Ruth Sheen portrays his estranged mistress as angry and self-righteous, trying to get more money from Turner and recognition that her two daughters are his; Turner always denied that they were. On his visits to Margate, where he lives in domestic bliss with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a kindhearted widow, he sheds his identity altogether, adopting his lady friend’s last name. The tenderness he shows her is missing from most of his relations with women, with the exception of Mary Somerville (Leslie Manville), a Scottish scientist who shares his interest in the properties of light. Ruskin, the critic who championed Turner is portrayed in a derogatory mocking way as a self-righteous cockscomb and Turner's fellow artists range from supportive to completely dismissive.

 Leigh captures the changing world of England, from rural to urban, from wind to steam, from insular to increasing global. His patron in the beginning is the 18th century aristocrat, played by Paddy Godfrey. The man who offered to buy the lot (Peter Wight) represents the new world of industrial capital. There are multiple cameos in the movie - from Oscar Wilde chortling at a painting to Queen Victoria muttering her dislike of Turner's work to Prince Albert to the numerous merchants, sailors and people on the street, a world that's richly imagined beyond what usually passes for realism in a movie. "Mr. Turner' is a triumph for Mike Leigh and for Timothy Spall.

 There is no glorious epiphany at the end of the movie, no wrapping up of a complex figure with poetic finesse. Turner's work was about the light and it's light, that cinematographer Dick Pope gives you, composing each landscape like a Turner painting - from the film's opening shot of Dutch windmills to seascapes, moors, and majestic mountains.

 For those who surrender themselves to the pace of the movie, it is as if you are walking along side Turner, a man who gave himself to his art completely in a world that was outwardly cruder than ours. What is that Buddhist saying about the journey being more important than the goal?  Go on the journey with Turner which Leigh and Spall have made possible, the dark side as well as the light.

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