Mike Leigh, “Mr Turner” (2014)
I confess I always have the time of day for the under-rated British actor Timothy Spall who always had the talent to be a leading man but was always relegated to minor character roles or playing second fiddle, due perhaps to his basset-hound looks. At last in “Mr Turner”, Spall gets to play the leading man, the famous early 19th-century landscape painter and water-colourist J M W Turner who was turning out Impressionist paintings of the sea and early abstract art before either became recognised and accepted genres. The film covers about three decades of Turner’s life just before his father William died leading up to Turner’s last breath in which he utters “The sun is God”. Turner the character might have been talking about himself as there is hardly a shot in which he does not appear and the camera follows him zealously as he travels from his home in London to Margate and then Chelsea, and various parts of the English countryside including Dover and the New Forest, searching for artistic inspiration and suitable subjects to paint, and dallying with two mistresses and the maid who faithfully serves him.
There is no definitive plot as we would understand it: the film makes its audience voyeurs into Turner’s life (mostly fictionalised but based on what is known of his personal life) as he goes about his business, public and private, and the narrative arises from a collage of snapshots tracing Turner’s life from the mid-1820s to 1851 when he died. The film marks the passing of time by making references to the significant technological, social and historical events of the day: the steam train’s appearance marks the 1830s, Queen Victoria appears in one scene and Turner mentions the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851, in a late scene. All major actors in the film give riveting and often quite emotional portrayals but in a minimalist way. The women in Turner’s life occupy major roles here: there is his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), suffering from psoriasis and probably more besides, but always there for him, however badly he treats her, and secretly in love with him; and there is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady who becomes Turner’s second mistress. There is another mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who had two daughters by Turner. A running theme throughout the film is the way Turner treats his women: he lies to them all and dies without their ever being told that they are rivals.
As well as the acting, the cinematography is outstanding with many shots set up to resemble paintings with formal compositional elements. Turner the character is posed in scenes that later become the basis of the paintings that made him famous. The film emphasises Turner’s interest in light and the way in which light governs the mood of a painting which in turn can influence the way people look at the painting. Turner is seen taking an interest in the scientific developments of his day, even going so far as to invite a Scottish woman scientist into his home, and in his old age venturing into a shop to have his photograph taken just so he can see the challenge the daguerrotype – the forerunner of the camera – poses to his profession. One sees here in a subtle way how changes in technology signify the passage of time in this film that otherwise seems to flow without reference to it.
In spite of no obvious plot and the film’s length, “Mr Turner” does not bore: Leigh’s preoccupation with the minutiae of life in the early 19th century and the characters’ conversations, conducted in the idiom of the time, keep viewers occupied – well, maybe not all viewers but this viewer certainly was occupied. There are references to artistic competition and one-upmanship between Turner and another artist, John Constable (James Fleet); Turner’s friendship with Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a fellow artist of brusque manner who was always in debt and who committed suicide in 1846; and Turner’s acquaintance with the pretentious art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).
The film does not completely capture or even try to explain the complexity of Turner or why he acts the way he does, nor does it examine why how he became interested in light and how to capture the fleeting moment in a scene that made his paintings distinctive and at times abstract. The desultory nature of the film in which some moments of Turner’s life are highlighted and others ignored mirror Turner’s own interest in catching a particular moment in the day when the sun shone on a landscape in a particular way. Something of the way in which an artist can be held in public esteem, only to fall into public mockery, can be seen in the film’s later treatment of Turner in which as an eccentric old man, he sees people turning away from him, making fun of him in music hall revues and his paintings valued at a paltry 100,000 pounds by an American businessman.
The film does rise and fall with what viewers can gain out of watching the film. Some viewers will be bored by an aimless parade of diorama scenes and will wonder what the whole point of the film is, having no obvious story to tell and saying nothing profound about Turner’s motivations or character. The film shows a microcosm of the world in which Turner lived, how his relations with his women reflected something of the hierarchical social order of Britain, how his career rose and fell with public approval of his work and how eventually the world left him – as it does other artists, scientists and other significant contributors to human culture and society – behind. In that alone, the film has actually said something quite profound.