Squinting At Artwork And The Artist
Authenticity emanates from the painterly glow of director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. His latest is a biopic that examines the 19th century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, primarily in the last quarter of his life. It’s rendered in such detailed strokes and overbearing beauty. It stands in unique contrast to Turner himself, embodied by Timothy Spall, who gives an ugly scowl the first time you see his portly face and emotes uglier grunting over the next two and a half hours. Part of the movie’s conceit is adjusting to this profound paradox.
The first thing we know about Turner is his domestic situation. His sickly father (Paul Jesson) watches over their large estate in London, as does their housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), a deteriorating woman used for part-time pleasure. They both assist Turner’s painting and dismissive attitude. That’s fully exposed when his ex-wife and two estranged daughters come by to share news of his grandchild, which he heavily breathes as insignificant. His early neglect etches a darkness to which Leigh rarely returns.
What Leigh has done is infuse every scene with the picturesque landscapes in which Turner finds his inspiration. It goes beyond recreation. Partnering again with cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh’s vision and resourceful light spread as high and far as the screen will take him. It’s not enough to capture the inspiration though. The seascapes pop with the same foggy impressionistic fervor Turner glazes over with his brush. Point of view shots suggest this vision but also allow for mesmerizing observations. You see what he saw.
Many times they take place outside, but the interiors provide more arresting visions. The manor houses are extravagant and large and Leigh hovers his camera outside of rooms to imbue their echoing expanses of this extravagant living. Scenes at The Academy provide good humor and more marveling, keeping up with the hundreds of framed oils stacked on top of each other. Turner’s wallowing gait and hunched expressions make him less than ideal for these early Victorian rooms. But before caste systems began segregating, he enjoys equal footing in conversation and artistic merit.
The movie follows Turner to his studio and watches his craft but Spall doesn’t allow his gruff nature and brush dexterity to define his character. There is also a gentle and astute man beneath the physical incongruity. The charm that projects past his sometimes-incomprehensible muttering extends to Margate, where Turner makes annual visits and courts its innkeeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). This is a man that can still love in his own broken way.
It’s difficult to see a conventional narrative as Turner’s steps stumble together and his breathing becomes a clogged chamber of gasps. It’s best to step back from his slow demise, like it’s best to experience his paintings from a distance after examining them up close. The arc of Turner’s life comes into better focus even as the movie slowly adjusts the lens. Toward his end he questions his own obsolescence, not with sadness but with perspective. He poses in front of a newly exported camera and sees the permanent result. He overhears former buyers pity his faded seascapes. He becomes the butt of jokes at the theater. The locomotive begins replacing the boat and later a painting covered in toxic steam becomes his only technological rebuttal.
These scenes don’t breathe of despair though. The lighting and sunsets are too ethereal to get infected, even as sad orchestral woodwinds fill the meandering soundtrack. Leigh doesn’t shy away from humor either. He adds in the young art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) that would champion Turner’s work as revolutionary and evocative of nature’s ephemeral moods. “There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art,” he accents. Hundreds of years add comedy to his sincerity.
In the film, however, Ruskin finds condescension from other artists regarding his stern and vigorous beliefs. Leigh helps persuade his churlishness by giving McGuire a silly accent and little representation of his own artistic merit. Turner would eventually let Ruskin execute his will, which left all of his paintings to Britain. Ruskin believed in the art though, even as the masses eventually soured towards it. You’re able to comprehend his incredulity because Leigh has allowed you a chance to look behind the curtain. At museums, you marvel at his brushstrokes and movement but you never see how they’re applied. The film’s power relies on this rare opportunity, watching a corpulent, sometimes crude man project, dab, and blot outdoor beauty within a stuffy bedroom.
Mr. Turner is far from a stuffy, sentimental British picture, of course, which is to say that nothing prepares you for Leigh’s explosion of color and dramatic flare. He’s almost teasing you when he puts Turner on the Thames and positions the HMS Temeraire in the distance. That sunset can’t be real, can it? The same incredulity funnels through Turner when a friend performs a science experiment using a prism. “The universe is chaotic, you make us see it,” she reassures him, as if calming his worry about the evolving industrial tumble. Nearly two centuries later, her words still have meaning. This time, it’s Leigh who is facilitating your gaze.