Turner at work

Last week I spent a couple of hours, post a passion fruit caipirinha, watching the newly released ‘Mr. Turner’. Having not read any reviews of the film, I had no real expectations. I did assume it would be a film about J.M.W. Turner and had a vague recollection that Timothy Spall had spent two years learning how to paint. My only other expectation (if it counts as one) was in my dislike for Timothy Spall. I do not know not why I do not warm to him. Perhaps it has been due to his choice of film or character in previous years? I have no basis for this dislike whatsoever, and apologise to the esteemed Mr. Spall, for I know his acting to be of a very fine quality; and since watching the film my recognition of his capacity to act has increased.

Mark Kermode, applies his usual hyperbolic tone with a positive review of Spall: A magnificent growling-bear performance by Timothy Spall is just one of the masterful brushstrokes in this lusty, physical, spit-and-spunk portrait of J.M.W. Turner from singular British screen artist Mike Leigh.[1]

Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘Self-Portrait’, c.1799
Turner, Self-Portrait (c.1799, Tate).

I would agree. I certainly recommend the film to Mike Leigh fans and to Art Historians or general art fans. Interestingly, I now gather there are growing criticisms of the film’s lack of narrative thread. This film is a biopic, and a biopic by definition means a biographical film (in case you had forgotten). So what should we anticipate from a biopic? I would suggest, nay, I would proclaim, that we should expect a retelling of the life events of the person in question. It does not have to be a cradle to the grave retelling, in fact that would be impossible to achieve and any editor (whether pre or post production) would have to chop significant periods of time and detail from any life story for it to be a manageable film which would still have entertainment appeal (the ultimate aim surely?) One should be left with the key points and major events of the life, and even allowing for education or expansion of knowledge, a film needs to be entertaining. Mr. Turner achieves this easily, which is no mean feat when some of the detail of Turner’s and relationships are lost or were never recorded.

It is unclear to me how one can object to the lack of narrative when Turner’s life was quite simply, Turner’s life? What narrative did people expect? Is the complaint that Turner did not have a Dickensian moral transformation or that he should have had more of a Hardyian tragic decline? Perhaps Leigh should have decided to do a Tarantinoesque film and turn events upside down and inside out, in order to keep us all guessing. However, since Leigh chose to focus upon Turner’s established career, I am not sure what else he was supposed to have done but present that information, as known, in his tried and tested way.

Hannah Danby

The film focuses on the period 1828 until Turner’s death (a heart breaking, death rattling scene) in 1851. The events within that time frame are those which we know (or can reasonably surmise) to have occurred in Turner’s life. Leigh does opt for convention in some scenarios, e.g. Turner’s daughters are presented as Sarah and not as Hannah Danby’s, although there is some ambiguity and debate around the real mother. This detail is of little consequence and should not amount to a criticism. I agree with Leigh’s choice in presenting the more likely / known version, after all the brief of film was not to unravel myths although Leigh would no doubt have done so if his fastidious research team had produced evidence to enable such a move. The point which Leigh conveys is surely more about Turner’s lack of parental feeling and or responsibility toward his daughters, regardless of who the mother was. If indeed Hannah Danby was the mother, the depiction of that character would no doubt have been altered. Leigh’s decision to keep Sarah as the mothers allows Hannah to become the much maligned housekeeper, which Dorothy Atkinson (in her third film with Leigh) plays to perfection.

The film opens with two women walking through a field, with the camera only panning on to the silhouette of Spall as they pass. The scene is set in the Netherlands (based on hats and the windmill) but strangely Leigh does not follow up with this scene and there seems little context for it other than to depict his obviously increasing absence from the household Hannah and Turner’s father keep ticking over in his absence. The film then shows Turner returning to his home in Queen Anne Street, greeted with the companionate indifference of Danby, who does everything from clean up cat shit to offer up sexual gratification against a book case. Danby is a wonderful character, full of humour and tragedy. Her shadowy figure keeps an unhealthy eye on events around the house and she is never far from ear shot. On the rare occasions when Turner has visitors, Danby more often than not remains conspicuously within the room. Turner seems to tolerate her presence with a kind of disgruntled pleasure, possibly amused by his visitor’s obvious discomfort at her inclusion. Danby’s gnarled, twisted body is emblematic of her decaying relationship with Turner, whose tolerance of her is at best due to his dependence and at worst, because of his cruelty. As Sexton writes, ‘This relationship may be invented but no matter: it’s a classic Mike Leigh disappointment story in itself.’[2]

William Turner Senior with Turner.

All the key relationships in the film are drawn to perfection, the most emotional of which is that of Turner with his father William (beautifully played by Paul Jesson). William a low key, loyal, strong man is there by Turner’s side. Supporting, working, generally doing, he enables Turner to be Turner. His gradual ill health prepares the viewer for his inevitable decline and death, and the final death bed scene is one which shows Spall in gentle tears, amidst laughter and utter desolation. The loss of Turner’s father is shown by Leigh to be an emotional wrench without being overly dramatic or sentimental.

The other key relationship is the gentle but ever soothing love which Mrs Booth offers to Turner, first as a landlady in Margate and then as his sole companion in a small, comfortable home at Chelsea. Never marrying her, the pair seem as happy and as perfectly united as ever a couple could be. The coarseness and cruelty Turner is evidently capable of with Danby is replaced by a kind of silent respect and affection for Mrs Booth (albeit with the odd rough grope thrown in for good measure!) Leigh introduces one scene where Danby actually spies upon the household Turner shares with Mrs. Booth and her figure becomes a pitiful, diseased one, abandoned to the fate of a woman with no support, and no looks to rely upon. The tragedy of Danby in this scene is contrasted by the warm hearted, smiling, clear skin of Mrs. Booth who even at the loss of Turner is somehow sated by their love.

Relationships aside the rest of the film shows Turner at work, and allows us to see insights into other artist’s and the details and petty foibles of the Royal Academy. A particularly enjoyable scene is the brawl in the middle of the R.A.! Constable is shown as a jittery, riled, and somewhat aggravated figure. His defensive attitude provokes sympathy rather than hostility though, and Turner is shown to rather enjoy the anxious irritation he knows he has caused. Leigh nicely uses Constable as an artistic catalyst though, therefore acknowledging and safeguarding Constable’s equally powerfully reputation.

The Royal Academy

Turner’s working practice on varnishing day is displayed but I was rather underwhelmed by this. I felt that the scene could have showed Turner as a little more of a maestro, it certainly could have provided a bit more fun. However, the scene did what it needed to and showed Turner as somewhat cavalier in comparison to the others, but technically ground breaking to our eye. Spitting, rubbing, smushing paint and marks upon the heavy impasto of his ‘ridiculous shipwrecks’ we still get to glimpse his somewhat unusual practice. Certainly not the one Prince Albert generally encouraged on varnishing day, and definitely a style Queen Victoria responded to as a finished product (Leigh includes a viewing by the royal couple where Turner overhears their disparaging comments). The much informed Peter Nahum of Leicester Galleries has written on the quickness of this scene and called into question the presentation of Turner as being a quick painter. I think Leigh included sufficient comments in other scenes throughout the film which indicate time and effort incorporated into Turner’s works. I remember one line which said the painting in question had taken two years, so whilst I concede with Nahum, I think there is substance enough elsewhere to counteract people walking away with such an image (assuming they were listening).

Varnishing day

Queen Victoria wasn’t the only one to criticise Turner’s works, there is another scene where two fabulously awful women are discussing his work as being like ‘soap suds’. I rather enjoyed these catty scenes and found the depth and breadth of Leigh’s presentation of Turner, his style, and his working practice rather acceptable. As an interesting aside, Leigh also shows Turner’s own position being overtaken by the up and coming artist’s of the day when he shows him looking somewhat disapprovingly at the Pre-Raphaelite pictures exhibited in 1851.

The only real issue I really have with the film is the awful CGI tug boat scene. Leigh (obviously determined to cram in all the anecdotes true or otherwise, e.g. varnishing day, Petworth, being tied to a ship’s mast) inevitably turns to Britain’s favourite painting, The Fighting Temeraire (1839, National Gallery). The scene in the film felt photographically awkward and embarrassing. I concede that scene should have been included, but I’m not convinced it worked aesthetically. The photography in the film is genuinely superb, the golden light of Turner’s works can often be found reflected in the film, and really helps create a world where you can visualize and place Turner. This is key because it allows the growing dis-ease brought about by science to help deliver the powerful natural world we find in Turner’s lasting oils. This is surely Leigh’s objective?

Turner, 'The Fighting Temeraire', 1839
Turner, The Fighting Temeraire (1839, National Gallery)

The film offers us Turner but it does not explain him. Leigh does not determine we should psychologically connect or know with Turner. He is kept as the grumbling, snarling, gruff Cockney figure he is described as being. Socially awkward (or indifferent?) Turner is never really part of the establishment despite giving odd, mumbling lectures. By virtue of his humble origins being so evident, Turner must have experienced some remove from the society gentleman who periodically flounced into his dirty, dripping studio offering to buy his works.[3] Turner’s indifference or belligerence is admirable. In the same way, he endures an outrageously effete young Ruskin, Turner’s resolve remains steady when he declines an offer of one hundred thousand pounds for his oeuvre.[4] Not thwarted by other people’s intelligence, ideas, money, or expectations (social or otherwise) Turner remains stalwart. He simply is who he is. It is not him we should seek to learn about, it is his legacy. This film will no doubt help secure many more visitors to the Tate’s Clore Gallery, and the National Gallery, and in my view, that makes this film a resounding success.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/02/mr-turner-review-mike-leigh-biopic-great-master

[2] http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/mr-turner–film-review-timothy-spall-plays-turner-magnificently-in-this-mike-leigh-masterclass-9830122.html

[3] Leigh shows the studio (and the house) to be in decline but the inference, subtle though it is, is that this is down to Danby’s neglect rather than Turner’s abandonment of the household. Cinematically this works as the inference is subtle and not of major consequence, however, it does raise the question: why, if Turner was determined to leave his works to the nation, did he not care for them more?

[4] There is one scene which shows Turner, not long after the death of his father, visiting a prostitute who he proceeds to draw. Ruskin is said to have burned such drawings. Leigh does not make a judgement as to whether or not Turner was having sex with the prostitutes.