“Mr Turner” (2014) – a richly rewarding biography of a great British painter
Directed by Mike Leigh
“Mr Turner” is a fascinating film which the director Mike Leigh dreamed of making for about fifteen years. We see the latter years of Turner’s life, from 1826 to his death in1851. Leigh has drawn a lot of information from biographical sources, and historical facts known about the times of Turner, but has also taken some creative licence with certain aspects of the film’s story. It’s a not-to-be-missed film, particularly for those interested in art history.
Leigh and brilliant actor, Timothy Spall, (who seems now to have been born to play the role of this eccentric, curmudgeon of a painter), have brought us a window on a fascinating time in British history. Timothy Spall won the Best Actor Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, for this performance.
This was when the young Queen Victoria was on the throne, and the approach of the industrial age was on the verge of changing everything, and yet there are references to Lord Horatio Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar, (1805) still fresh in the minds of the people of Turner’s times.
There’s a telling scene when a Scottish scientist/mathematician Mary Somerville visits Turner at his studio-gallery. She brings a prism and a camera obscura to demonstrate to him the properties and behaviour of Light, and how it splits into the light spectrum.
Another new fangled thing was the Daguerrotype – the first ever photographs, made on glass plates. We see Turner go to a studio to have his own picture recorded, and he asks all the right questions, that a man who has thought a lot about light would ask.
During this time that we share with Turner though out the film, everything was changing, including the accepted style of painting. This latter is drawn to our attention near the end of the film, when Turner comes along to the Royal Academy to see another annual exhibition, and stops in his tracks, looking at the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, the next fashion in art. It’s very different from his style and the subject matter is often people from myth, legend and literature.
Turner had himself, pushed the boundaries of traditional painting to a huge degree, and his work changed and developed immensely throughout his lifetime of drawing and painting, to the point that at the end of his life, he was working in a totally abstract manner, and was like a man intoxicated by the wonders of the light. All detail had disappeared from his last painting, and it was all “atmosphere” and glowing yellow tones and texture. There was a lot of contradictory opinion amongst the public, about his work, as it became more and more abstract. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are shown in the film, visiting a show at the Royal Academy of Art and the young queen does not like what she sees. “A dirty, yellow mess,” she said.
The film refers to the coming of the steam engine, by showing us Turner’s observance of a steam engine coming towards him. The resulting painting was entitled, ”Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway” of which a biographer Anthony Bailey wrote, ‘It was a masterpiece’, but nobody bought it.”
The ‘end of an era’ message is symbolised in the most famous and beloved of all Turner works, “The Fighting Temeraire” (painted 1838) which we see in a wondrous shot (with a little digital help), being towed up the Thames to its last resting place, and to be broken up for scrap. Turner and friends are in a rowboat, observing the scene, and someone mentions that it would make a wonderful painting. Indeed it did, and graced the lid of many a biscuit tin in later years. The ship played a major role in the Battle of Trafalgar, with Admiral Lord Nelson aboard “The Victory”, leading the British Naval force to a resounding victory against the Franco/Spanish armada, near Cape Trafalgar (Spain). In this battle Lord Nelson lost his life.
A print of this painting of the “Temeraire” was on the wall in the living room of my own childhood home. Researchers now say that probably Turner didn’t actually witness this towing scene on the Thames and may even have been abroad at the time, but his vivid imagination was certainly up to the task of visualizing it.
Turner was indeed an artist-visionary, and his obsession with light, and the ever-changing visual beauties that the sun could cause to appear on atmosphere, water, clouds and sky was his lifetime study. He travelled a lot, which we are shown in the film, both in UK and also abroad. Stories of shipwrecks and storms filled his imagination and his canvases.
He was a contradictory character, shown in Leigh’s film as quite cruel and unable to show affection to his ex wife/mistress? and two daughters, or to his loyal, psoriasis-wracked housekeeper, who was at least very fond of him. She is known to have worked for Turner for forty years, but perhaps his off-hand treatment of her and sexual episodes are part of the characterisation of the film.
He was very close to, and affectionate towards his father, and when his father dies, we see Turner sobbing and devastated, unable to sketch a model in a brothel where has gone to make some drawings.
Another side of him reveals itself, when he meets Mr and Mrs Booth, of Margate, the seaside resort town, in whose home he boards on his incognito forays to the resort town for sketching. There he calls himself Mr Mallord, one of his middle names. They do not know that he is the very famous artist, Mr Joseph Mallord William Turner.
After Mr Booth dies, he and the warm-hearted Mrs Booth (now twice a widow) become lovers and later live together as man and wife in Chelsea, up-river from central London. When he’s with her he is no longer the thumping, grunting, growling and harrumphing bulldog type character we see when he’s with most others. He is even smiling and tender and at last we begin to warm to this extraordinary characterization, courtesy of Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh.
There are a few friends to whom Turner shows an understanding heart and sympathy, but certainly not to his abandoned wife and daughters. Even when he’s told of the death of one of the daughters, he has nothing to say. We wonder what it takes to touch this man, but we know well actually, that what touches this man is THE LIGHT. The wonder of this film is that we get to see the world through the acute, attentive eyes of an artist who was so pre-occupied by the visual, that he found it difficult to come back to the everyday world where most people exist.
Quite a few of his peers, are shown to be as eccentric as Turner, but in different ways.
Turner had to endure becoming the butt of jokes in the Music Halls, but he was stubborn and rich enough from his popular earlier career to be able to carry on with his own painterly explorations into the properties of light.
John Ruskin, the eminent critic/commentator/writer of the time plays quite a major role in the film, as he did in the artistic lives of Londoners at the time. He was quite a defender of Turner, but also critical at times. Ruskin is shown as rather a comic character, but his son is shown as outright ridiculous, with an extremely pretentious manner of speech. It appears that Mike Leigh and his actors have had a great deal of fun creating the 19th Century characters. John Ruskin’s critiques influenced a lot of people, and later he supported the new young painters, known as the Pre-Raphaelites, whose work is still popular to this day.
The film’s recreation of the 19th Century is convincing and Mike Leigh says in an interview published in “Sight and Sound” magazine (Nov 2014) that he has a most useful book bought in Charing Cross Road, London, called “The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811”, which was obviously very useful for scripting the amazing dialogue in “Mr Turner”. Leigh chooses actors who are capable enough to improvise, even in such antiquated language, which they develop during rehearsals.
Mike Leigh also explained in that interview, that Timothy Spall had spent a lot of time learning to paint so that he could be shown working at his easel. As an artist myself, I did not think that it was a success, as he was only shown putting some simple strokes on the canvases, that would have taken only a few hours to master, and his position of holding of the sketchbook and pencil were totally unrealistic at times.
The artist, J.M.W. Turner was born near Covent Garden, in the East End of London, and spoke in that dialect. His father and mother and grandparents were all working class people. However Turner showed drawing talent at a very young age, and his father was thrilled enough to value this talent and send him to art school, and supported his art career always, working with him, mixing paint and helping run his gallery adjoining the studio, where Turner had a peephole in the wall, to watch as his father escorted buyers viewing the finished works for sale.
On his deathbed, with the kind Mrs Booth at his side, his last words are said to have been, “The Sun is God” – – spoken like a latter-day Akhenaton, (an Egyptian Pharoah of approximately 3350 years ago, who also came to that conclusion.)
Copyright : Cynthia Webb, January 2015
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