"Mr. Turner,” a film by Mike Leigh, 2014
There are films to see on decent televisions at home, or in a pinch that small screen on computers. This is a ‘big picture’ film that needs to be seen in a theater. After all, a film about a painter will be ‘painterly.’ Director Mike Leigh attempts sweeping vistas of ocean or land, setting suns and steam, ships and seagulls, shorelines, farmer’s fields, lakes nestled in high hillocks or mountains, all back-grounding the sketch outings of J.M.W. Turner, the British romantic painter who lived from 1775 to 1851. Turner himself cannot be bested on screen, at least in this film. I would call Turner the first Impressionist, as he increasingly used light, natural phenomena and emotion, not always direct depiction, in his paintings. He did not paint religious themes or burghers and royalty, or excel in clutter, and instead focused on nature and ‘maritime’ themes, including people ‘merry-making’ or working.
Argh, there be SPOILERS beelow.
The film finds Turner at the mid-stage of his career, when he is already an accomplished painter, part of the Royal Academy of Art. He was inducted into the Academy at the ripe age of 14 years old by Joshua Reynolds, one of Britain's top painters. Tim Spall, one of Leigh’s semi-permanent acting company, plays Turner as a gruff misanthrope who underneath is extremely perceptive and passionate. At one point, he makes fun of the egocentric young critic John Ruskin by likening Ruskin’s artistic taste to whether he likes one kind of meat or another. In this film, Turner sees himself visually as an ugly and obese ‘gargoyle’ – so the film suggests perhaps his life was an attempt to find beauty. Spall is an excellent actor, nothing like the usual pretty-boys or muscle-bound oafs that become ‘leading’ men. His grunts say it all, and there is a lot of grunting in this film.
Turner’s only real friend in this film was his father, who faithfully bought paint powder, stretched canvases and cleaned up after his son. They both had very bad marriages, and commiserated over alcohol. Turner himself is shown in this film cruelly ignoring the two children he had with his angry harridan of an ex-wife, even to the point of not attending one of their funerals. He also ignores a ‘tetched’ woman, Hannah, who acts as his life-long home servant – at one point shoving her against a wall for sex and then walking away. She was incoherently in love with him and he was too self-centered and crude to notice. Turner visited the sea at Margate in south-eastern England quite a number of times and fell in love with an inn-keeper, Mrs. Booth, who had lost her husband. At one point, he too grabs her sexually, but in this case it leads to them living together in Margate and later in Chelsea along the Thames in London.
Leigh is a political director and, while he has never done a film like this, politics lurks in the background. Turner feels compassion for a broke painter who asks him for £100, a painter who is later cast out of the Academy after a very public argument. He eventually cancels his debt after hearing the extent of his suicidal poverty. Turner himself actually set up an organization to help painters with health or financial problems – something which even today is quite forward looking. A key scene involves a wealthy man attempting to buy all of Turner’s work for £100,000 - paintings, sketches, water-colors. Turner turns him down, saying that the work is to be given to the British public for free. Some of the work still resides in the British Tate gallery, but it has been scattered among several museums, against Turner’s wishes.
In Turner's spirit, the film also pokes fun at the Royal Academy – a set of mostly pompous upper-class twits in this depiction. Philistine British opinion led by Queen Victoria, which disliked anything not sufficiently naturalistic, also comes in for a slam. Of especial significance is Turner’s painting of a slave ship dumping sick slaves into the ocean. There was a massive anti-slavery movement in Britain, which resulted in it being peacefully outlawed through out the empire in 1833, more than 30 years before the U.S. This painting implies Turner was part of that movement.
Turner dies in Chelsea, and on his death bed utters a line, perhaps understanding his last words were to be remembered: “The Sun is God” … then chuckles. This poke at religion is something to be expected from Turner, who seemed to be a man far ahead of his time.
December 29, 2014