THE FIRST SCENE of Mike Leigh’s stunningly beautiful new movie, “Mr. Turner” presents us with a couple of Dutch women gossiping as they stroll along a twilight-gold dyke. The camera pulls back to reveal, in silhouette, the rotund shadow of Timothy Spall’s Turner sketching the scene. The movie has been in the works since the 1990’s and over the years, apparently, Leigh and his cinematographer, Dick Pope would, in the midst of shooting something else, be stilled by unexpected moments of Turner-esque light. As any artist would, they stored these moments of light somewhere in their cavernous memories so as to inform the visualization of the movie they eventually made ten years later.
For in “Mr. Turner”, every frame is crafted and composed with a painterly precision. One of the most visually poignant of these is one in which Turner sights the Temeraire, subject of one of his more famous paintings, “the Fighting Temeraire”. In real life, the ship Turner would have seen, as it was being hauled away to Rotherhithe by tugs would have been a shell of its former self. No matter, here Leigh offers us a vision of the vessel, steaming into sight, hazy against an ethereal sunset. We are seeing what Turner would have seen. And throughout the movie, Leigh locates us within the observing eye of the artist to see the mid nineteenth century England as he would have seen it.
Leigh was keen to ensure that his bio-pic never descended into a docu-drama. There is no question that the artist he shows us lived a life almost entirely through the lens of the art he sketched. He is always sketching, always painting. But the more overt biographical details of Turner’s messy domestic arrangements, his near bankruptcy, his Messianic determination to outpaint the accepted masters – Poussin, Rembrandt, daVinci – the expected chronology of life events etc. are merely glanced at, never dwelt upon.
Instead what Leigh offers us is a Turner who is almost the antithesis of the reverential, passionate, light infused works we associate with the artist. The eloquence of his art (he left behind some 20,000 pieces) is contrasted by a growling, snorting, porcine man of very few words. Here is beauty produced by a man who saw himself as a gargoyle (thought Turner himself was very much the handsome, debonair gallant).
The movie offers us a series of such stark contrasts and dualities: Turner is insensitively indifferent to his wife and children, who he often does not even acknowledge as having, and yet is tender and loving with the mistress in whose arms he dies (Marion Bailey as Turner’s Margate landlady Mrs. Booth). He lives between the twin worlds of the salon with its elegance and the bordello with its dangers. His grunting inarticulateness is contrasted with the refined and nonsensical eloquence of Ruskin’s set. He is the working class cockney in an upper class world. He is both on jocular, camaraderie terms with his fellow artists (and great rival Constable) and he is set apart and slightly sneering of them. He is famous and celebrated and yet reviled and scorned. He is withdrawn and also a supreme showman (we see him pulling off a wonderful moment of artistic triumph at Varnishing Day – when artists are permitted to add last minute touches to their hanged works – at the Royal Academy). He is impecunious and yet indifferent to an offer of great wealth. He is the married Mr. Turner as well as the philandering Mr. Booth and Mr. Mallord. He is a benevolent employer and a serial abuser of his dim-witted maidservant.
The one place he seems comfortable, where he can be master of his domain, is his studio. Leigh suggest not only that this is where it all comes together, but that Turner’s ability to focus only on the things that were important to him (and therefore to shut out anything else, no matter the consequences to others) is both what makes the man and what makes the art.
The movie therefore offer us its own fine duality as a means of suggesting the true pigments of the artist’s palette: of a rich, glowing, light-filled ‘artistic’ visual reality – the external world of the land and the sea- as well as the darker reality of his relationships and often sordid life. This an indoor, internal world of darker rooms and closed curtains (In a nice symbolic touch, patrons are shown into Turner’s darkened, unlit studio which bursts into light as the curtains are thrown back and the canvases – bearing light?- are revealed)
Timothy Spall is outstanding as Turner. He has very little dialogue to work with, and communicates his approbation, discomfiture, joy, sadness, passion and despair through nods, grunts, smirks and facial tics. If Turner only knew how to express his real self through the medium of paint, Spall channels Turner to enable us to see this self through the medium of his body language. It is a marvel to behold.
This meticulously realized movie is actually quite quiet and unassuming in the way it presents itself. In the hands of another, there’d be much more sturm und drang, more swelling music and histrionics. Perhaps for this reason, my initial response after the movie was that it all felt a bit flat. Here was a tale filled with so much inherent drama that somehow we saw the drama…but without the drama. And Mike Leigh was right. This is a movie that needs (with me anyway) to season overnight before its power soaks in. and when it does, it bears seeing again