Mr. Turner Review
"The Sun is God"
These were the last words of celebrated late Georgian Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner.Under Mr. Turner director Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope, ochre-infused sunrises and sunsets are treated like primary characters in this 2014 film, which won Best Actor for Leigh regular Timothy Spall in Cannes but failed to reap any major awards from either the British or American film academies. But the movie doesn't end with this death-bed scene: it ends as undramatically as it began, with Turner strolling through gilded sunshine, sketchbook in hand. Other famous artists have arguably made more dramatic subjects for film due to their salacious lives (Picasso, Carvaggio) or madness (Vincent van Gogh). Turner's life was humdrum in comparison, but not his talent.
Mr Turner is not even a portrait of the artist as a young man; the film covers the last 26 years of Turner's life, when he was already established. Neither does he undergo any real dramatic rivalry with fellow painters; he mostly mingles convivially (and grandstands a tad) with John Constable et al. as they gather to touch up their work on 'Varnishing Day' at the Royal Academy of Arts, like salesmen hobnobbing at a business convention. In short Turner is secure in his position, although his increasingly modernist approach and outré offerings are flummoxing the public (witness how he smarts from the shadows when a music hall troupe satirizes his new abstract direction as a canvas of crushed jam tarts).
MrTurner is not the story of a great driving struggle, addiction or desire; more of a portrait of Turner's consuming commitment to his art. He even rushes from his death-bed half naked to sketch a drowned woman. One might call him a method actor of painting, going to such lengths as being tied to the mast of a ship during a storm, in order to deepen the artistic and emotional response for his foreboding study of light, Snow Storm - Steam-boat off a Harbour's Mouth. It is a profound study of what made the great artist tick: the people and the landscapes he surrounds himself with, and above all the light, as an expression of Romantic spirituality.
The stalwarts of Turner's life are his father 'Daddy' (Paul Jesson) , a successful wigmaker and barber who champions his talented son from the start and acts as his studio assistant; his faithful mousy housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) who attends to his physical needs (all of them, in the film at least); and Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), the kindly widowed landlady from Margate who acts as his emotional anchor. He ignores and denies the existence of two daughters by a surly ex-mistress and secretly lives for years with Mrs Booth in Chelsea, passing himself off as 'Mr Booth'. He only seems to show emotion when 'Daddy' dies.
Most scenes take place in two locations: Turner's Twickenham home-cum-studio, and his boarding house in Margate (actually Kingsand in Cornwall). Margate was to Turner what Giverny was to Monet, its seascapes and quality of light a major source of inspiration. What the film lacks in drama it makes up for in wide sun-burnished scenes that shimmer and linger like the actual paintings. It also gives a fascinating and historically-accurate glimpse into the everyday business of making a living by painting: for example the procurement of his signature chrome-yellow paint powder, and the necessary networking with Royal Academy toffs and rich or influential patrons like eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin and the affable and obscenely rich Earl of Egremont.
Much has been made of Spall spending over two years studying painting in general and then specifically Turner's technique to lend authenticity to the role. As a result the film offers an intriguing insight into Turner's techniques, and how his style turned alienatingly esoteric and proto-Impressionist (his latest Royal Academy offering Sunrise with Sea Monsters is dismissed as a 'dirty yellow mess' by a snooty young Queen Victoria). It is something of a shock to see how Turner created his sublime sun-hazy seascapes, spitting on and rubbing at the canvas with a grubby rag.
This is no portrait of the artist as a young man, instead dealing with the last 26 years of Turner's life when he was already established.
The greater Victorian world is alluded to via the paintings: there is a short aside on the evils of slavery as an adjunct to his painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). And in a scene mirroring maritime landscape art itself, Turner and some artist friends row past the naval ship Fighting Temeraire, which played a heroic role in the Battle of Trafalgar but is now being towed away by a muscular tugboat for turning to scrap - a prophetic nod to the decline of Empire and the encroaching triumph of smoke and iron, as captured in Turner's late-career Great Western Railway masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed.
Of more personal pertinence to Turner's trade is the burgeoning Victorian technology of photography. Driven by curiosity he visits an American photographer, Mayall, to have a daguerreotype portrait done. Mayall mulls on the mystery of why photographers can as yet only produce images in black and white, not colour. 'Long may it remain so,' is Turner the artist's curmudgeonly response. Certainly not anti-progress however, he invites self-taught scientist and 'nature philosopher' Mrs Somerville to his house to demonstrate prism-aided colour and light experiments.
In this way, Turner is portrayed as man of great contrasts; he grumbles about the cost of raw materials for his art, but turns down an offer of £100,000 for his collection, declaring he will bequeath his vast assortment of oil paintings, watercolours and sketches to the nation. He can hold impromptu hoity toity art debates at society gatherings but sniggers like Sid James when he makes a salty remark to Mrs Booth.
So why was it snubbed at the Oscars? For one thing it is a period piece without the picture postcard Merchant-Ivory treatment. Luminescent long-range seascapes are countered by unpalatable close-ups of the ills and filth of Victorian life; Hannah Danby scratching at the itchy red psoriasis on her neck, whole pigs heads dumped on the table for dinner, bloated bluebottles collecting in the ceiling muslin of Turner's studio. And above all, the neanderthal grunting, bronchitic wheezing and shuffling of the great artist himself, waddling Penguin-like with permanently pursed lips about the narrow streets of Margate and London with his ubiquitous umbrella.
Moreover, the language of the script - actor-improvised to a certain extent as usual - is Dickensian to a probably disconcerting degree for some viewers: Turner did not think about things, he 'cogitated'; and he urged hysterical painter Benjamin Haydon not to calm down but to 'brook his ire'. The agitated Oscar-nominated score by another longtime Leigh collaborator Gary Yershon yelps, rises, falls, and descends completely into silence in unexpected and almost sinister ways, reflecting the natural maelstroms in Turner's paintings. There is little of redeeming beauty in Mr Turner or his society. The beauty is in the art , and the perceived divinity of the sun he devoted his life to expressing on canvas.
You can buy Mr. Turner on Blu-ray here
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