Sunday, February 8, 2015


If you're interested in art or history or both, hie thee hence, pronto, to see Mr. Turner. Mike Leigh's cinematic valentine to expressionistic English landscape artist J. M. W. Turner may be a bit too stately paced at times, and short on dialogue, but it's also absorbing and kind of rhapsodic, in a weird, curmudgeony way.

It's funny that Leigh, purveyor of such life-sized, English working-class dramas as High Hopes, Secrets and Lies, and the brilliant Another Year, should feel such affinity for the painter of wild, larger-than-life canvases from what's now known as the Romantic era. (Which also spawned lyric poets like Byron, Keats and Shelley, and the rise of Gothic melodrama.)

Although, besides the exaltation of Nature, there is nothing "romantic" about Turner's work. Rather, call it furious, with enormous, turbulent skies, mostly shrouded in mist, fog, or raging storms, that dwarf the few tiny humans on land and their petty concerns. Furious, too, is Tim Spall, onscreen just about every minute as the driven Turner.
One Spall grunt is worth a thousand words.

Detractors complain that Spall simply grunts his way through the film. This is partly correct, although his Turner proves himself capable of uttering the gallant, ornate language of the day when need be. ("Now I must throw myself into the arms of Morpheus.") But his grunts—of pleasure, relief, dismay, and especially disdain—become a wry language unto themselves. Spall expresses more in a single grunt than many actors can manage in pages of dialogue.

I'm not a Turner scholar, so I can't say how accurate a portrait Leigh creates of Turner's relationship to his deeply wounded and resentful wife (the mighty Ruth Sheen) and the grown daughters he apparently ignores. Or to the housekeeper who adores him and suffers his occasional random sexual advances in silence. (Dorothy Atkinson is very touching in the role, although her character is allowed to become almost a comic caricature mid-film.) Or to the sweet, earthy landlady (Marion Bailey) who becomes his mistress in later years.
Turner's family do not share his devotion to Art.
But Leigh paints a lively depiction of Turner's interactions with the other artists of his day, and their art scene. When he breezes into the Royal Academy as a new show is being hung, the monosyllabic greetings he exchanges with each of his fellow artists tells us all we need to know about his relationship with each one. (Especially the clipped way he and rival Constable barely acknowledge each other.)

Famed art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) is portrayed as a pampered son of privilege with an affected lisp, eager to dazzle with his intellectual analysis of art (which mostly confounds the artists). And while the success of Turner's work forgives his eccentricities in most eyes, all it takes is one unfavorable remark from the new young queen, Victoria, for Turner's star to fall as it becomes fashionable to mock his work.

I love how this movie immerses viewers in the teeming life and culture of its historical period, roughly the late 1820s through around 1850. Carriages clatter across the cobblestones, hawkers cry their wares, rugs are beaten outside in yards, and a new horse-drawn railroad engine belches a plume of white steam across the countryside.

The period details of an artist's life are well-depicted too. At the Royal Academy, most of the artists are still applying paint to their framed canvases even after the show is hung. Paints are mixed from powder and oil, and canvases are stretched by hand. To obtain the perspective he craves for a painting, Turner has himself lashed to a ship's mast, like Odysseus, during a storm at sea.

Leigh's take on Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire."
 Leigh can't resist framing many of the film's outdoor vistas as if they were Turner paintings, to gorgeous effect, as well as recreating onscreen some if Turner's famous pieces (like the towing away of the decommissioned warship, Temeraire, to be broken up). Which sets up the finale, when Turner sits for a photographic portrait and realizes the camera will forever alter the world of painting.

Art has continued into the modern world, of course; it's simply adapted, as everything must. But even by modern standards, Turner's work still seems visionary, captured in Leigh's film in all its robust grandeur.

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