Sight Unseen: Mr Turner

[Sight Unseen is a new feature of film reviews by writers who have not seen the films they are reviewing.]

Mr Turner
Directed by Mike Leigh
149 minutes
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

What can one say about the greatest British painter that hasn’t been said before?! One could try saying something about him in a film, which is what director Mike Leigh has done.

J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) as played by Timothy Spall is a typical artistic contradiction. He is capable of philosophising in the highest-flown language about his art in one moment (‘Mrs Eastlake, when I apply my brush, I brush the welkin’) and in the next moment telling his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) that she has ‘Aphrodite’s own fanny.’ This squares with what we know of Turner. He emerged from the earthy trade neighbourhoods of Georgian London with a view towards dwelling on Parnassus, and, in the end, he was probably equally at home in both places. To show this is called ‘humanising the artist.’ But did we ever think that Turner was insufficiently human?

In fact, much of the film is about this connection between Turner’s amorous entanglements and his late, profound artistic development. The two women in his life are his landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) and his long-suffering housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), a relation of the discarded Sarah. Spall’s Turner handles his two love interests like a man dancing with two brooms. Two of Mr Turner’s greatest moments of low comedy are a surprise meeting with Hannah in a public house called the Rainbow and Ivy, and an obscene encounter with Sophia on the quarterdeck of the mothballed H.M.S. Temeraire (subject of a beloved 1839 painting).

All the while, Turner’s paintings are becoming ever more ambitious, and more tenuously figurative. Late Turner has sometimes been spoken of as an early abstract painter. Leigh acknowledges this critical bromide playfully. In one scene, the painting Turner is working on is actually a Kandinsky. In another, the artist works on Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) (1843) whilst suspended in the middle of the room via a pulley screwed into the ceiling. He flings the paint down and smears it with a bit of muslin to achieve his characteristic blurry effect.

This is not the sort of painting that recently fetched an artist’s record £30.3 million at auction, but a price like this would not be possible without the myth of ‘Turner the abstract visionary.’ Add to this salesroom triumph the fact that a major exhibition of his late work has gone up at Tate Britain and it appears that J. M. W. Turner is having an annus mirabilis, that his stock has never been higher.

It hardly seems, then, that exaggeration would be necessary to add interest to the film’s subject. But Leigh, usually praised for his attention to historical detail (for example, in Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake), has taken liberties. For instance, the duel that Turner fights with the critic John Ruskin (played with menace by Joshua McGuire), his erstwhile champion, feels unnecessary, and the fact that it is contested with foils is an absurdity. The ‘erotic masque’ that is staged semi-secretly in Margate is more like an out-take from Eyes Wide Shut than the naughty parlour game I imagine it is meant to be. And the final scene, in which Spall utters with a strangled cry, ‘The painter’s not for turning!’ (echoing, of course, the famous words of Mrs Thatcher), is of dubious historicity. Also, in this scene the right-handed Turner can be glimpsed swishing a brush with his left hand. These may seem to be quibbles on my part, but every nail is needed to hold together a structure as rickety as a biopic.

Still, there are some sweet touches, some heartfelt homages to the subject, that show that the film is an honest one. Some of the scenes, and especially the closing twenty minutes of the film, were shot through a lens covered with what seems to be petroleum jelly. This reproduces the look of a painting like Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), for example, but in moving images. This was a bold choice by cinematographer Dick Pope. A passing remark made about a miserable meal on a train (‘The food moved through me so fast I could barely see it’) clearly references the painting Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844). And, about halfway through, Spall appears, uncredited, as a swollen red sunset, to be painted by Spall as Turner. Very clever stuff!

A full and true account of Turner’s development may be better left to books. But we already knew that. What Mr Turner does is to remind us yet again why we want to know about Turner—the man and the work—at all.

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