PRINT November 2014


Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 149 minutes. J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall).

FROM THE FIRST LONG SHOT of Mike Leigh’s epic cinematic portrait of the landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, we are unmistakably in the presence of a master. His gaze fixed on the burning disk of the sun, Turner jots rough graphite notations in a sketchbook. His feet are firmly planted; his surly, porcine profile emerges from between the lapels of an ill-fitting frock coat.

A penetrating study of late style, Mr. Turner leads us through the last third of the painter’s life, from the public triumphs of the 1820s to the experimental, nearly abstract works of the last years, when some thought he was mad. From the wordless introductory vignette of the middle-aged artist at the height of his powers to the wrenching deathbed scene a quarter century later, the film is dominated by Timothy Spall’s towering performance as Turner. The furrowed terrain of Spall’s face conveys the widest imaginable compass of emotions. He emits a symphonic range of guttural noises, grunts, and snorts, expressing the fierce inarticulacy of a protean individual at odds with the genteel social codes of the day—the barber’s son who rose to the pinnacle of the British art world and shattered every convention of landscape painting. Spall’s ungainly form embodies the artist’s unruly creativity and his boundless self-belief: His eyes register Turner’s every quicksilver shift from cruel egotism to profound human warmth.

The disparity between Turner’s rarefied, exquisite paintings and his uncouth appearance and strange habits of speech constantly baffled his contemporaries. Spall allows us to see Turner as both social being and creative force: We soon become aware that, even at his roughest, Turner had, in the words of John Constable, “a wonderful range of mind.” Spall chews and sucks on his words, enjoying each one to the full: In his surviving letters and poetry, as here, Turner employed the stilted, courtly vocabulary of the autodidact. The film’s dialogue, as usual in a Mike Leigh production, has been developed through ensemble work with a group of actors over a long rehearsal period. Though not always quoted verbatim from the artist’s correspondence or other remnants of his writing, every word nevertheless bears the stamp of both historical and emotional authenticity. To anyone who has attempted to navigate through the thickets of the artist’s prose or encountered the fragments of his bathetic epic poem Fallacies of Hope, the malapropisms and misusages that litter his character’s speech in Mr. Turner will hardly seem exaggerations concocted by the filmmaker for comedic effect.

Like Derek Jarman with Caravaggio (1986) and John Maybury with Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), Leigh and his estimable cinematographer Dick Pope have immersed themselves in their subject’s visual idiom. They allow Turner’s studies and sketches to suggest compositions and lighting schemes. Thus, at Petworth House, home of Turner’s patron the third Earl of Egremont, the sunlight in the Old Library, which the artist used as a studio, is just as Turner noted it in a vibrant watercolor now at Tate Britain in London. Even the exaggerated, conical necks and dangling ringlets of the Regency-era ladies found in Turner’s playful watercolor sketches of a musical soiree at East Cowes Castle in 1827 (also at the Tate) are echoed in the film’s gently satiric costume design.

At Petworth, Leigh interjects a touching interaction between Turner and a woman of refinement but reduced circumstances (played sympathetically by Karina Fernandez), whom the painter encounters playing Beethoven, alone, on a fortepiano. Discovering a shared fondness for Henry Purcell, the two haltingly perform “Dido’s Lament.” The scene is an unforgettable cinematic tour de force: intimate, comic, profound. As the painter growls his way through the baroque elegy, the camera traverses the grand walls of Petworth, upon which his own landscapes vie with portraits by Van Dyck and Holbein, revealing the diminutive Cockney to have entered the pantheon of masters.

The artist biopic is, of course, a genre fraught with danger. Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) gave Charlton Heston, playing Michelangelo, a heroic role to rank with those of Ben-Hur and Moses, but hagiographies of that ilk generally reveal little about painters or their work. Mr. Turner portrays its subject differently. Neither matinee idol nor suffering garret dweller in the Toulouse-Lautrec mold, this successful English artist manipulated the market cannily and eventually donated a massive collection of his own work to the British state. A proud if querulous member of the Royal Academy, he hardly conforms to the rugged Kirk-Douglas-as-van-Gogh celluloid image of artistic alterity promulgated by Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956). Leigh’s achievement here is closer to that of Carlos Saura with Goya in Bordeaux (1999), a film carried by the revelatory performance of Francisco Rabal.

Mr. Turner deftly reanimates and burnishes the time-honored trope of the Romantic artist-genius rather than debunking it in tired, postmodern fashion. But this unvarnished portrait of Turner is painted, like Lely’s of Oliver Cromwell, with “warts and all.” Turner’s relationship with Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), his doting housekeeper, is marked by sustained cruelty, indifference, and violent sexual exploitation. We also catch a glimpse of his callous neglect of the two daughters he had fathered with an earlier mistress, Sarah Danby (a superbly exasperated Ruth Sheen). A contrasting aspect of his character emerges in Turner’s tender relationships with his father (Paul Jesson), whose death is a transformative event, and with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a landlady in the coastal town of Margate, in Kent, which the artist visited frequently to paint. Though Victorian biographers drew a veil over this aspect of their hero’s life, Mrs. Booth eventually became Turner’s lover, and he found great solace in her company at the homes they secretly set up, first in Margate (where his presence is now commemorated by the Turner Contemporary gallery) and later by the Thames at Chelsea.

In Leigh’s own previous foray into historical drama, Topsy-Turvy (1999), a study of the tense creative relationship between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the narrative arc followed The Mikado from its inception to its triumphal premiere. The structure of Mr. Turner is far more episodic; it slips from scene to scene. The film nonetheless vividly registers a period of deep historical change, from 1825 to 1851, just as Turner’s own work meditates on the results of industrialization more profoundly than that of any other artist. Science, machinery, and the emergence of photography are powerful presences in the film. Leigh dwells on Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, 1839, and Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway, 1844, works in which steam-powered technology looms large. With atmospheric footage of steamboats and railroad locomotives of the period, the film subtly illuminates the transformation of Britain during this crucial phase of the industrial revolution.

Leigh and his collaborators apparently made good use of recent biographical and art-historical research, such as Anthony Bailey’s Standing in the Sun: A Life of J. M. W. Turner (1997) and David H. Solkin’s Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1836 (2001), and not least of the film’s pleasures is the pitch-perfect reconstruction of the academy’s galleries, where gilded frames hung cheek by jowl. The contested status of portraiture, the heroic failure of British history painting, and, above all, the triumph of landscape—key themes in the art history of the period—emerge naturally within the film’s diegesis.

The plot is filled out with characters from the early Victorian art world, though even a viewer well versed in the underbrush of British art history will struggle to distinguish the dyspeptic portraitist Henry Pickersgill from the amiable specialist in marine subjects Clarkson Stanfield. Only the hubristic failure of the wildly ambitious and painfully sincere Benjamin Haydon emerges as a significant subplot.

In Leigh’s view, none of Turner’s contemporaries—not even Constable—deserves serious consideration as an artist. Touchy and embittered as a result of his lifelong professional rivalry with Turner, Constable appears only in a single cameo, working on The Opening of Waterloo Bridge at the Royal Academy’s Varnishing Day in 1832. This annual ritual, in which artists added final touches to works already hanging in the academy’s exhibition, was the scene of Turner’s most spectacular public performances. Sending in undefined “color beginnings,” Turner would arrive at the academy and, before an enthralled audience of his peers, finish the work, often adding bright areas of paint that would overshadow nearby paintings by his competitors. In 1832, noting the crimson highlights in Constable’s adjacent work, Turner famously added a brilliant splash of red to an otherwise muted seascape. “He has been here and fired a gun,” remarked the dejected Constable.

The film’s only true weakness appears late on, when Leigh mercilessly pillories the youthful John Ruskin. Surely no figure deserves debunking more than that of the pretentious critic. But Ruskin—the finest writer on art in the English language—was no fool, and to render him thus militates against the hard-won historical credibility of the film. Joshua McGuire’s sophomoric caricature belongs in the bottom drawer of Masterpiece Theatre.

Toward the end of the film, Leigh gives us Turner, alone and only months from his death, visiting the Royal Academy’s summer show of 1851—the year of the Crystal Palace and a high-water mark of Victorian modernity. Before him are two garishly brilliant works by the young John Everett Millais, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the organized avant-garde movement for whom Turner paradoxically represented both the epitome of artistic integrity and a paradigm of late-Romantic slovenliness. Leigh implicitly stages one of the great conundrums of British art history: How could Ruskin, champion of Turner, suddenly discover, that very May of 1851, in the razor-edged, daguerreotype clarity of the Pre-Raphaelites, a new form of artistic salvation? In his great work on Turner, Modern Painters,Ruskin had advised young artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing,” as Turner had done. The Pre-Raphaelites took Ruskin at his word, painting every blade of grass with hypnotic precision. Faced with one such canvas, Spall’s Turner emits a single grunt, a weary utterance that acknowledges the agonies of old age and the ironies of historical change. Unmistakable in that final, majestic snort, however, is Turner’s awareness of his own historical importance. Leigh’s portrayal reveals in true colors the greatest of all landscape painters, and a flawed but unmistakable figure of modernity.

Mr. Turner, which screened at the New York Film Festival last month, opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19.

Tim Barringer is Paul Mellon Professor of the history of art at Yale University.