“Why, Mrs Somerville, you have the arm of a blacksmith.”
Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s 2014 multiple Oscar and BAFTA nominated biopic about one of Britian’s most revered artists, the romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, spans the last twenty six years of his life.
I love Turner’s paintings, but I didn’t know much about the man or his life, and I think the film went a good way to furnishing me with the facts. Actually, it did more than that. It instilled an admiration for the man beyond his artistic genius, such as his work ethic, honesty, passion and down to earth personality, despite his elevated position in society due to his prodigious talent.
Turner’s art was so popular that it was responsible for raising the prominence of landscape painting to the same level as that of history painting in his lifetime.
Being a ‘period drama queen’, it was probably a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy this film!
Although it’s a dramatised biopic, so much about this film felt authentic. It was visceral and gritty, absolutely realistic, but those elements of the story were also beautifully interspersed with some amazing cinematography of the British countryside, atmospheric art studios and galleries.
Views of rugged mountains, the sea and the light on the coastline all evoked scenes that you can imagine he painted. There is even a moment where he is tied to the mast of a steam boat in a snow storm, so that he could later accurately paint the event. He did suffer for his art…
“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.” ~ David Markson, (Wittgenstein’s Mistress).
It’s wonderful that Mike Leigh made sure that the use of light, (which Turner was famous for), was a visual delight throughout the film. I loved the way the light streams through the window of his studio, and his encounter with the use of a prism courtesy of the witty and intelligent Scottish science writer and polymath, Mrs Somerville.
I would say that Timothy Spall’s portrayal of this prolific and eccentric painter is his finest performance bar none. To help prepare for the role of Turner, Spall had painting tuition from Tim Wright for two and a half years prior to filming, so that he would appear authentic in the painting scenes. It clearly paid off.
The viewer is treated to scenes of Turner travelling everywhere with his large kit bag, spitting on his canvases, blowing dried paint on them, and applying his forceful brush strokes.
Probably one of the best scenes in the film is when he enters the Royal Academy (which is like another home to him), and has upbeat interactions with his fellow Academicians, such as John Constable, George Jones, C.R. Leslie, David Roberts, and Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, and is shown putting the finishing touches to a seascape by the rather dramatic addition of a red buoy, much to Constable’s annoyance:
Spall gives a very lusty portrayal of the rather portly, rugged and enigmatic artist, a man who at heart liked the simple pleasures of life; his work, travelling, being at one with nature, his food and drink, sex and female companionship. When we are first introduced to Mr Turner, he has just returned to his home in London from a trip to the Netherlands.
On the one hand Billy Turner comes across as gruff, (he does a lot of grunting), curmudgeonly and secretive, (for instance he later leads a double life as ‘Mr Booth’ with his lover in Chelsea), and yet on the other hand he is also incredibly kind, lending £50 to troubled artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, later relinquishing the debt when Haydon falls victim to financial and personal misfortune. It becomes obvious that even though he is a very private man, he has integrity, and that he prefers simplicity and comfort, even though he is accustomed to grandeur.
His close relationship with his father, who works with him in his studio, purchasing and mixing paints and gathering materials for his work, is totally heart-warming. My sympathy went out to his melancholy housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who comes across as a rather pitiful creature that Turner uses to satisfy his sexual needs and who worships him, but her affection and devotion is not returned.
Strangely, Hannah is the niece of the even more hapless Sarah Danby, an earlier lover of Turner’s and mother of his two daughters. One feels Turner would rather forget the whole affair, but her random visits put pay to that!
Much is made of Turner’s trips to Margate to paint the seascapes; and the development of his relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, the welcoming landlady of the guest house he stays in during his time there. They eventually become lovers and she moves to London so that they can live together. They make each other happy in their dotage.
We also see how over the years his journey to the coast by boat is replaced with the invention of the steam train and the Great Western Railway, which Turner also committed to canvas.
“It was a masterpiece. Nobody bought it. (Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844)” ~ Anthony Bailey, (Standing in the Sun: A Biography of J.M.W.Turner).
There are quite a few touching moments, such as when he is a guest of one of his wealthy patrons, the 3rd Earl of Egremont at his hereditary home, the magnificent Petworth House in West Sussex, (which incidentally is also featured in my novel, The Virtuoso).
The camera floats along Turner’s paintings which are hung low to meet the eye line of dining guests, as he chats with Miss Coggins, who is playing Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ piano sonata. He asks her to play Purcell, and she obliges with Dido’s Lament, to which Turner sings along.
There is another scene where he enters a brothel, and meets a young girl for the first time. He asks her to reveal herself and arranges her seductively on the bed, and then proceeds to sit down and take out his sketch book.
Another is of Turner on a boat with friends and fellow artists on the Thames, when they witness ‘The Fighting Temereire’ Steam Boat being led to her berth to be dismantled, and it is suggested that Turner should paint her for posterity.
We are also introduced to the young Victorian writer, art critic and patron John Ruskin, who adores and reveres Turner, (he is beguiled by his painting The Slave Ship), but the viewer is made painfully aware that he hails from a different class. It is a rather satirical portrayal of his character, lisping away, full of hubris, and quick to criticize Turner’s landscape predecessor, Claude Lorrain.
We see that despite his relative fame while still alive, Turner is also victim to changing public tastes as his style of art grows more ethereal and intensely light focused. He winces in the shadows when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are inspecting the Royal Academy exhibition, and the monarch is definitely not impressed by Turner’s “yellow mess”. Similarly, he is mocked in the theatre for his later style of painting. He realises that the new kids on the block, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, are now in vogue.
One of the last scenes in the film takes place in Turner’s home gallery, when he is made an offer by a wealthy industrialist to purchase all of his paintings for the sum of one hundred thousand pounds. Still a significant sum of money by today’s standards; an absolute fortune in Turner’s era. But Turner just snorts and replies, ‘With somewhat of a heavy heart, it’s out of the question.’ He declines the generous offer, as he has bequeathed his completed artworks to the British nation.
If there is one small criticism of the film, it is of the modern, eerie soundtrack and music. I never thought that would be the case, but to me it felt incongruous to the subject matter it was meant to convey, and would have been more suited to a thriller. I would rather have heard music from the romantic period, which in my opinion would have suited the film better. Perhaps they were going for an atmospheric feel to align with the complex character of J.M.W. Turner.
Here is a fascinating short film about the artistic aspects of bringing Mr Turner to the big screen:
In summary, Mr Turner is a must watch film that draws you into J.M.W. Turner’s world and has a superb cast, screenplay and locations that brings his story vividly to life. I’m sure I will revisit the movie repeatedly now that I have the DVD in my possession!
What surprised me from the film was Turner’s constant sketching. He would sketch everyday events often, which is probably why his output was so prolific. He was said to have completed around 19,000 sketches during his lifetime, as well as hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings. He was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art at the tender age of 15, when it was under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
For art lovers who want to know more about Turner’s life and work here is a fabulous documentary:
He was not just an inspiration and source of pride for the British, his paintings influenced the Impressionist movement in France, and were carefully studied by Claude Monet.
“Unfortunately I met Mr. Turner at the Academy a night or two after I received this letter; and he asked me if I had heard from Mr. Lennox. I was obliged to say ‘yes.’
‘Well, and how does he like the picture?’
‘He thinks it indistinct.’
‘You should tell him,’ he replied, ‘that indistinctness is my forte.’” ~ George Walter Thornbury (The Life of J.M.W. Turner).