Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Roderick Heath
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s place in the heart of his native folk has only become more secure as time has advanced. He’s seen as triumphantly, transcendentally English as Walt Whitman was American or Goethe was German and is more popular than either. His painting “The Fighting Temeraire” was recently voted the greatest British artwork of all time by newspaper readers, the perfect encapsulation of a national spirit always torn between bold forward lunges and a haunted sense of loss. Mike Leigh is, on the face of things, the last filmmaker one would correlate with Turner, save in their very specific sense of nationality. Leigh is a portraitist and Turner a landscape artist, but both have stretched far beyond those limits. Turner’s blazing vistas, his expressivity through elements that humble mere humanity but also subsume them into the primal dramas of existence, couldn’t be more different from Leigh’s meticulous realism in environment and slightly skewed character study that is the very core of his art, closer to Dickens and Hogarth. In short, Leigh is literal where Turner became increasingly ecstatic and allusive.
Mr. Turner, Leigh’s new biopic about the artist, has the quality of an old, bitterly humorous observation that the lovers of so many artists are eternally frustrated their mates are never as sensitive in their dealings with life as they are in their art. Leigh conceptualises Turner accordingly and seems to push it to an extreme, offering Turner as a man with the elephantine hide of a Londoner who’s survived everything life has thrown at him, swathed in a mound of flesh that deep, deep within, holds a man of exceptional, almost morbid sensitivity. The film’s Turner (Timothy Spall) is first glimpsed furiously executing a painting of a Dutch landscape, complete with two gabbling women walking by on their day’s business, as oblivious to Turner as he is to them. Leigh returns to this motif repeatedly, contemplating not just Turner as man of and in his time, but as only one functional element, meeting other savants of the era, joking and jesting and crossing swords with characters of all sorts, roaming through crowds, be they holidaymakers, passengers, or fellow artists—a viewpoint, but not an entirety.
There’s a constant sense of buffeting, a sense that slowly makes the almost implacable veneer Turner usually offers comprehensible, especially when one knows Leigh’s perspective. Leigh has generally been less didactic in the political and social perspectives of his works than fellow British realist, director Ken Loach, whilst still being obviously and unabashedly fervent. This sensibility, particularly in his earlier work, was often explored in the figure of a tortured working-class male trying to make good on his talent but stymied in major and minor ways, in works like Meantime (1983), Naked (1993), and Career Girls (1997). Leigh’s take on Turner essentially envisions the same figure having survived and gained prosperity against the odds, whilst also splitting this characterisation, and offering the eruptive ne’er-do-well Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage) as Turner’s professional malcontent twin, echoing Meantime’s Mark and Naked’s Johnny Porter. Leigh emphasises Turner as the barber’s son made good, the artistic genius also a man who’s remained utterly of the earth, a portly mound of flesh, a man who can offer a range of responses from approval to contempt with variations on the same porcine grunt.
Leigh’s formally interesting decision to start with Turner at age 51 in the full stream of his success and tracing his final few years, invites inevitable personal reverberations: like Turner, Leigh is acclaimed but getting old, facing the shifting tides of taste and critical favour. The film’s narrative is both teeming and yet also exceptionally simple, portraying the last years of Turner’s relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson), with his housekeeper and concubine Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and with another lover, Margate boarding-house keeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), in whose house and company he finally dies. The one person Turner trusts and loves implicitly is his father, who, as his assistant, is first seen seeking out the paints that his son turns into visions.
Like any Mario Puzo gangster, the Turners are bound together in their class-informed, clannish interdependency: everyone else really is just a stranger, and whatever happened to sunder Turner from his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), he’s made the break completely, even denying the two daughters he’s had by her. The Turners pursue their venture as a trade, whatever its trappings: a wry scene early in the film depicts William’s showmanship, ushering buyers for their wares into a dark annex before opening doors into the gallery, the better to dazzle them with a sudden flood of colour and light. This is British art as cottage industry. Yet it drags Turner all around his world, hobnobbing with the gentry, arguing with fellow artists, conversing with boarding house owners.
A quietly bravura sequence early in the film sees the artist parading the halls of a colossal manor where a coterie of fellow artists are employed to offer décor for the cavernous house, chatting in a way with Lord Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) in a manner that reveals their shared traits of quick understanding and dour dislike of wasting time. Turner pauses to share a brief interlude of clumsy but intent bonding with a young woman (Karina Fernandez) practising Beethoven on the piano who indulges him by playing some Henry Purcell for him to sing raggedly along to. Turner is bitten for a loan by Haydon, who remarks with dry wonder at the turns of his life: only recently released from debtor’s prison, he’s now being entertained by a lord. After hectoring Turner, Haydon extracts the promise of £50 from him. During the evening soiree, a young soprano’s precious recitals give way to a bawdy song that delights the guests in a calculatedly cute assault on the rules.
Like most of the film, this sequence seems to be a mere quilt of vignettes, and yet the supple moves of Leigh’s camerawork and staging gives the film an oblique, but unified tenor that skirts the dancelike and the theatrical, as everyone’s free on their stage of life, eventually compositing into a tapestrylike vision of the age. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope offer one marvellous shot as punchline: Turner watches Haydon stroll off into the garden whilst still framed by one of the manor’s huge doors. Three more painters lurch into the shot from the side, pausing to follow Turner’s gaze and cluck over their hapless, solitary fellow who’s nominated himself to play the role of unappreciated genius, and yet, with Turner’s attention and the frame itself suggesting the tension between the security of acceptance as an artist and the unfettered state of the man beyond. Neither the character of Turner nor Leigh as controlling voice have too much time for rebellious romanticism: Turner is powered by sublime vision, but releases it in a job of work. Leigh is evidently trying to deromanticise the past here: this Georgian London is a bristling, dirty, vigorous, aggravating, invigorating sprawl, still earthy in a manner alien to the oncoming Victorianism. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), intellectual definer of his era’s culture, is portrayed as a chirpily effete idealist who engages Turner amidst a salon session with other artists in a conversation that ranges from gooseberries to French artist Claude Lorrain. Turner has a professional’s reluctance to bad-mouth Claude, one of his influences, in the face of Ruskin’s breezy dismissal.
Painting is often portrayed as a dainty art, the cliché of the artist seated and dabbing away at a canvas, but anyone who’s spent any time actually engaging in the form or seen anyone tackle the form on a large scale know that it’s actually a virile, physical activity, messy and demanding. Leigh embraces this quality and pushes his notion of the artist as brute force, as Turner does everything from politely caress his paint to spit on the canvas to gain his physically involving effects. Spall’s Turner is a genius Caliban who can be showman, raconteur, even a seducer, and can offer the most surprisingly eloquent soliloquies on art or life, if often sputtered out between lips barely willing to move. Turner barely bothers to speak, and the sense emerges that verbal expression is not something he likes, particularly when called upon to release emotion. The film’s torturous scenes dwell on this incapacity—amusingly, when he tries to give a stilted speech on optics to the Royal Academy, and, more hurtfully, when he can’t cough up a cliché to conjure his feelings after one of his daughters dies. Not that he’s an insensate pillar of self-indulgence: Leigh constantly hints at secret sources of pain and also the very real incapacity in many creative types to offer the sorts of codes and semaphores used to mollify and normalise social situations.
Mr. Turner as a whole is both brilliant and problematic, a storm-swell of accomplished filmmaking where the exact object feels uncertain, like a great, necessary leap was left untaken. Yet the result is stirring and fascinating, a fresco of ingenious detail that communes between the mud of history and the ether of personality. The sustained depth and brilliance of Spall’s performance as the pivot of Mr. Turner is a career highlight for a hugely talented actor and is surrounded by such pitch-perfect turns. Leigh does not, as we expect from most biopics, transfer the passions of creative endeavour onto a romantic love for easy consumption; far from it. Turner copulates bullishly with Hannah and others when the need arises, but seems to feel them as no more than natural urges, like eating or defecating. Instead, he finds electric transcendence in art, clearest when he has a sailor strap him to the mast of a ship, Odysseuslike, to be swept up in a snowy squall at sea, both an act and observation which he alchemises into his mighty work “Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Turner’s relationship with Danby is both excruciating and funny, and finally dusted with tragedy. Quite clearly Hannah enjoys Turner’s attentions, but nothing like a romance persists between them, with interludes of carnality suddenly rising and falling like winds and then returning to polite distance. Only right at the end when Hannah, essentially left alone to exist as a peeling, scabby wraith in Turner’s house, seeks out her missing master and finds him now ensconced with Booth, does the depth of Hannah’s bond emerge. The theme of the servant who takes both pleasure and refuge in being the pokerfaced crutch of the genius reminded me more than a little of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
By contrast, Turner’s relationship with Booth starts when he goes to paint in Margate, a picturesque and teeming seaside locale fit for his artistic obsessions. The town proves to have a personal meaning to him, as he was sent to school there, and survived where friends didn’t in the dank and appalling state of educational institutions of the age. Mrs Booth has a husband (Karl Johnson) who fascinates Turner with his grim and guilty recollections of days as a sailor on a slave ship, which Mrs Booth tries to awkwardly bypass with bromides. On a return trip, Turner learns that Mr. Booth has died. He takes the opportunity to praise the widow on her weathered beauty and seems to prize her company as a refuge from the world he strides through as colossus but can actually barely stand. As the two become a couple, Booth eventually sells her Margate house and buys another on the Thames as an easier-to-reach refuge for Turner. Again there’s a hint of investment for Leigh here: Bailey is his partner, and the scenes of Turner’s oddly earnest seduction of her have the immediacy and particularity of such a backdrop, the authentic human comedy of courtship in late middle age.
Compared with the increasingly formulaic and tepid state of the prestige biopic industry, which has served up turds in the past few years like The King’s Speech (2010) through to this year’s cartoonish Get On Up and empty The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner seems like an alien artefact, overflowing with biographical detail, but much of it subordinated to a powerful but discursive intent to explore the world about its antihero as much as his impenetrable head rather than turn the stuff of life into dreary plot beats. Everything from serious artistic debate to glimpsed contretemps between lovers excites Leigh’s eye. Mr. Turner isn’t quite sui generis, as it particularly resembles Alexander Korda’s underrated Rembrandt (1936), which likewise considered the artist from mid-life onward and contemplated him from a similar perspective of interest as a man of real artistic ideals but hapless in the world. Echoes here, too, are to Ken Russell’s similarly holistic fascination for artists in the world. Russell’s lacks of measure and subtlety and Leigh’s lack of the penetrating force of metaphoric exploration that a less earthbound artist can wield, are revealed as complementary. What Mr. Turner ultimately lacks is a focal point. Whereas the sprawl of Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) was given centrifugal force by the project of creating and staging “The Mikado,” Mr. Turner, moving across time as it does, flails to find shape. Although the creation of “Snow Storm” is brilliantly exposited, other sequences affecting to portray moments of inspirations for great works like “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and “The Fighting Temeraire” are weak.
Leigh and regular cinematographer Dick Pope occasionally stoop to offering hints of Turner’s vision in their visual textures, most cleverly in one shot where the camera seems to be studying what could be fine details of blotchy paint on one of his canvases, only for this to prove to be a mountainside, creating a clear and explicable link between Turner’s subjects and his vision. Otherwise, Leigh circles his subject, studying Turner’s surface exactingly, expressing wonder and incisive fascination, but never gaining access to the mysterious mills of his creativity. In fact, Leigh doesn’t really even try, and it’s arguably a good idea that he doesn’t, refusing to tie the wonder of creativity or life in general up in the neat bows of pop psychology and false epiphany. But Leigh’s contemplation of Turner’s artistry too often threatens to become banal, as when he shows a friend his painting of Hannibal’s progress across the Alps and has her strain to pick out an elephant: Turner doesn’t paint the obvious! At one point Ruskin, studying Turner’s vision of drowning slaves thrown from a sinking ship, bypasses the hapless humanity to concentrate on suggestions of God’s presence in the glimmering light piercing the clouds above: the object which Turner contemplates is subsumed by the aesthetic perspective, something that the often peevishly literal Leigh can’t abide. Here Leigh shows his hand to a great degree, suggesting a cheeky likeness of critical masturbation, but he might just betray his own lack of real penetration into his subject, trying to cover it up with sneering that stumbles perilously close to boorishness. More interesting and telling is the later conversation Turner and Ruskin have about Claude: Turner quietly refuses to engage in Ruskin’s critical habit of creating hierarchies and dichotomies, maintaining professional respect and perspective for an artist responding to different stimuli. At his least, Leigh can lumber like a thoroughbred horse drunk on fermented apples, a mixture of precision and wayward intent.
Leigh’s method is far more at home depicting Turner attending an exhibition of his fellow artists, an electrifying sequence laced with wry and pointed observations as Turner shrugs off news that his work has been relegated to the dreaded antechamber along with Haydon’s, and instead struts through the scene like a king surrounded by fellow royalty, offering pleasantries and keen observations whether wanted or not. John Constable (James Fleet) labours on his mammoth painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge, furiously adding flourishes; Turner, with impudent precision, strolls over to a naval painting and adds a red buoy to break up the visual texture and thus enrich it, making a theatrical act out of his very simple revision and grabbing attention from all, from the fascinated to the appalled. Haydon, on the other hand, explodes in anger and frustration when he’s grilled over the meaning of his painting of a donkey, which he claims is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and almost comes to blows with his rivals.
Turner and Haydon’s acquaintance is faintly reminiscent of that between Lesley Manville’s frantic Mary with the centring couple in Another Year (2010), with a similarly empathetic yet unsparing wisdom about the types of personalities that weather storms and those that don’t, and how they tend to relate. There’s the suggestion Haydon, rather than being burdened by Turner’s loan, actually needs it to keep him connected, and Turner senses this when he abruptly absolves the debt and washes his hands of the wayward fellow artist. Manville appears in another of the film’s transfixing scenes, playing plucky Scots scientist Mary Somerville. Somerville demonstrates the peculiarities of magnetism to the interested artist, a swift understanding and amity developing between the Turners and Somerville fired by intuition and sharing a wry sense of their own individuality and hard-won space for expressing it.
That indeed is one of the major themes of Mr. Turner. One of Turner’s few outbursts of intemperate feeling comes after his father dies. He goes to a brothel, intending to sketch one of the young whores (Kate O’Flynn) in a pose of desolation, but when he learns she’s 13, suddenly taps his own grief and becomes a sobbing mess. Art here is most clearly a ritual Turner uses to sublimate his emotions, but fails in the face of such a well of grief—or, perhaps it succeeds in just this cause. Turner is left unmoored by his father’s death; where William took pride in turning his son’s showroom into a place of wonder, all Turner can do is poke the dead flies gathering in some meshing whilst showing some buyers his wares. Leigh works in a hint of satiric semblance as Turner evolves not just into a proto-modernist with spare, almost abstract visions that bemuse his public, including Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), but also becomes the first to receive the backlash of incomprehension. Turner is burned and humiliated when he’s satirised in a stage revue he attends, his art jeered as a confidence trick to suck in rich patrons, a routine gone through about once a week in British tabloids with artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin these days. By the end of the film Turner is turning his nose up at the rigorous craft and sentimentality of the pre-Raphaelites (Leigh turning his own nose up at the current film scene?), aware that his intransigent pantheism and Regency libertinism is on the way out. He’s also confronted with the new phenomenon of photography and is fascinated even in the face of his own potential obsolescence.
Turner later encounters Joseph Gillott (Peter Wight), who is also a working-class man made good, but in industry, which has made him fabulously wealthy. Gillott, bucking the turning tide of Turner’s popularity, offers to buy up all of Turner’s works. In spite of the similarities between the two men, Turner resists because he wants to donate his works to the British people. Although Leigh surely means this moment as an earnest apotheosis for the artist’s concept of his role in his society and denial of mere financial success, nonetheless, he has Spall play it less like triumph than as a bemused, half-willing gesture toward an ideal and a hope from a man who’s feeling bruised and confused by the twists of his fate. Leigh depicts Turner’s waning days as a brutal and unstoppable succumbing to the natural forces Turner himself worships. He hauls himself out of his bed to try to sketch the corpse of a woman found drowned in the Thames mud, again perhaps trying to conceptualise his own looming fate through his art. “The sun is God!” he declares on his deathbed, and then gives a dry little chuckle before expiring, as if his dying epiphany is a private joke between himself and the universe.