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Film Review: Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner (2014; Directed by Mike Leigh)

The cinema in 2014 gave us several fascinating perspectives on the nature and source of artistic genius and inspiration. It was defined alternately as an innate gift divorced from experience and formative circumstances (Frank), a collaborative hybrid of pure creative outpouring and regimented organization (The Lego Movie), and a product of technical ingenuity and dedicated work ethic (Tim’s Vermeer). Its ossified and fragile patrimony was worth protecting from the violent upheaval of history at the cost of human lives (The Monuments Men) and its blistering self-expression was worth wringing out of willing vessels at the cost of human kindness (jazz-school drama Whiplash).

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, artistic genius is simply a fact of everyday existence. The sublime cannot be summoned, captured, or marshalled; it simply is, and those with the right kind of eyes and the proper technical training can occasionally craft a slight reflection of it. Suffering or pain do not motivate or inspire an artist to greater work any more than these common bedfellows of human existence motivate a baker, a tailor, or a factory worker. Art is an object that many people can craft but some can craft better than others, and profound treatises considering the reasons for this discrepancy are unproductive, wrongheaded follies.

This grounded, realist approach is symptomatic of Leigh’s filmmaking, but it is not an impediment to aesthetic beauty or sympathetic insight. Indeed, Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. Portraying the key adult creative years of Britain’s greatest painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (played with grunting, Falstaffian, bearish reality by the ever-excellent character actor Timothy Spall, who might also get an Oscar call this year), Leigh’s film is chocked full of the stuff of a complicated but earthbound life with little of the romantic bohemianism of the myth of the genius. But in exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame (including a breathtaking Low Countries field with sunlit windmill as well as the full panorama of The Fighting Temeraire), Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.

That daily life included the loss of his proud ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) after years of the elder Turner assisting the younger in his work, his refusal to acknowledge a mistress (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two also unacknowledged daughters, his blithe disregard and occasional sexual exploitation of his psoriasis-afflicted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual quasi-marital bliss with widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). He meets with wealthy patrons and fellow Royal Academy artists (there’s an amusing episode at the annual salon between Turner and his landscape rival, John Constable), learns of the scientific nature of light and colour from a natural philosopher and foresees the fundamental shift that the embryonic practice of photography will herald in painting, and endures and then wittily mocks the insufferable erudition of influential art critic (and hagiographer of his future reputation) John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). He lives long enough to sees major shifts in fashions in art and to witness the increasingly abstract works of his later years dismissed by early Victorian society (and even by the aesthetically particular Queen Victoria herself).

The constant through it all is Spall as Turner, swaying his trunkish form with observant determination. There seems to be little corporeal distinction in the man’s body from hips to shoulders, but he has the interesting face to end all interesting faces, to borrow a Hollywood casting director term. Spall’s Turner is consistently unlovable in his behaviour and especially in his relationships to others. He often speaks abruptly and directly, grumbling frequently, vocalizing his reactions in ursine grunts and groans of an astonishing variety and expressive breadth. Leigh’s script is peppered with understated humour, but the film’s truest chuckles (and Turner’s ultimately winning personality) stem inevitably from Spall’s communicative croaks.

Strokes of painterly beauty aside, Mr. Turner is a deeply realist biographical portrait of an artist who could pull the sublime out of the natural (and the unnatural) world. A different filmmaker might have elevated Turner as his work elevates what it depicts, but Leigh keeps things stubbornly grounded. A good exemplification of his approach can be descried in a famous episode in which Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship to observe (and later to paint) a maritime snowstorm. It’s a wonderful image of borderline-insane artistic commitment, and another filmmaker might have used the full technological toolbox of modern moviemaking to make an epic, sweeping sequence in long shots approximating the grandeur of a Turner canvas. They might not have even been wrong to do so.

But Mike Leigh shows Spall being tied to the mast in medium close-up, cuts wide briefly to demonstrate his crow’s nest elevation, and then goes back in close, showing Turner splashed by clumps of snow, hooting in exhiliration at the experience. Then he shows him coughing and breathing heavily, his doctor fretting that he’s given himself bronchitis. It’s a choice of mundane reality over the mythically grandiose that is highly representative of Leigh and, if we share his view of the great artist and not-quite-so-great man, ultimately of J.M.W. Turner as well.

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Categories: Art, Film, Reviews
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  1. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

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