Man is an island
Mike Leigh's latest (his latest set in an earlier period, costumes and locations and all) Mr. Turner seems to take its cue from its eponymous character, an unfriendly, uncompromising, uncommunicative creature, except on specific occasions (usually his social equals; in one special case a woman--and even then he wouldn't say who he really was). He crosses entire countrysides in his unhurried gait, seemingly unaware of the gorgeous nature surrounding him--the rolling hills and suntinted seas and massive pillars of cumulonimbus--until he gets home and smears paint on the canvas, and you gradually irrevocably realize, to your not inconsiderable surprise, that this curt compact densely constructed little gnome of a man is actually a master of light and color.
Leigh's film feels every bit as tightlipped, is as full of surprises. Turner meets an old man who cooks for him and mixes his paints (throughout the film but especially in these scenes the color yellow seems to pop out of the screen) and we later learn that this is his father; he has a servant who sets up his studio for him and when ready to leave she pauses beside him and he mashes her breast before dismissing her (a startling, uncomfortable and yet somehow erotic moment). Later his daughters and their mother visit, though he never acknowledges the parental connection (dragging information much less the truth out of this man feels like conducting a tax audit--a thankless interminable task).
And Mr. Turner isn't content with what secrets he already possesses; he visits Chelsea and sets up residence there with a Ms. Sophia Booth (the neighbors called him 'Mr. Booth'). He visits prostitutes, who present their behinds to him as if presenting cuts of meat for his approval. Mr. Leigh gives us all this without fuss or comment; he seems to just allow Turner's life to unfold leaving it to us what this or that detail means.
Longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall plays Turner like a root vegetable: without glamor or need for attention. Yet he commands the screen anyway; his very disdain draws your eyes, even in the often bustling and boisterous Royal Academy of Arts. His rounded diminutive form, bumps and all, gives him the intriguingly textured look of an earthen talisman, a crudely carved magic totem.
He's ably supported by Paul Jesson as the (occasionally melodramatic) dad; Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, his heroically loyal maid; Marion Bailey as the widowed Sophia Booth (he seems most at ease--if not immediately honest--with her); Ruth Sheen as Sarah Danby (mother of his two daughters); and Martin Savage as the faintly ridiculous, faintly tragic Haydon. It's a lovely ensemble, everyone insisting on the importance of his or her drama (Haydon especially) while left-handedly supporting Leigh's prismatic view of Turner, each revealing a facet of the man's character in his or her unwitting way.
Leigh might have done a better job selling the idea of the man--the fact that, for one, Turner managed to elevate the status of landscape art to that of historical painting; that his later works developed into idealized studies of light and color that would inspire the French Impressionists some twenty years later, modern abstract artists half a century later. That said, it's difficult to persuade Leigh to lecture on anything--he seems to have fashioned the film on the assumption you already knew about Turner going in, and would recognize hints and allegations of the man's greatness sprinkled cunningly throughout. Arguably Mr. Turner's most poignant moment comes when the man chances upon a camera portrait shop, and realizes what this meant for the art of painting in general, and for landscape artists like him in particular; he's seen the writing on the wall, has to carry on as if it didn't matter. In a way he's right to pretend--his legacy survives the arrival of photography (not to mention filmmaking) to influence at least two major art movements; and he has inspired Mr. Leigh to produce some of his best recent work.
As for the film's breathtaking visuals,
I'd say Leigh wasn't trying to reproduce Turner's paintings so much as he's trying to suggest the
source of Turner's inspiration, the complex raw material from
which any painter or artist for that matter must simplify, distil, reinterpret to produce his work. At one point Turner is tied to the mast of a ship during a storm, and the titanic forces raging about him are almost too terrible to behold; Turner's imperturbable frown comes into its own here as he confronts the storm's fury--he's like the little black box safely hidden in a plunging passenger jet's tail, alert and ready to summarize the calamity about to happen.
Not a fan of the biopic genre; seems to me the form as currently practiced is too much of everything except interesting--James Marsh's The Theory of Everything was too cheerful; Ava Duvernay's Selma too insistent; Clint Eastwood's American Sniper too polished and ultimately reverent. This grabbed me, mainly because it insists on doing anything but; one of only two recent film biographies I really like.
First published in Businessworld, 5.7.15