14 November 2014 | JamesHitchcock
The Sun is God
Mike Leigh is perhaps best-known for his serio-comic social-realist dramas about contemporary British life, films like "Abigail's Party" and "Life Is Sweet", but he also seems to be developing a sideline in biographies of nineteenth-century cultural figures. First there was "Topsy-Turvy" about Gilbert and Sullivan, and now we have "Mr. Turner" about the life and career of the artist J. M. W. Turner. Or rather about the latter part of his life and career; when we first meet him he is already middle-aged.
Leigh has described Turner as "a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter," and this is undoubtedly true; Turner's work, especially his later work, seems to prefigure Impressionism, perhaps at times even abstract Modernism. We must not, however, allow our appreciation of the progressive side of Turner's work to degenerate into that lazy cliché about the great artist starving in a garret, scorned or neglected by his contemporaries but later discovered by a grateful posterity. (Very few great artists, except perhaps Van Gogh, have ever conformed to this stereotype). He was greatly admired by his contemporaries, was praised in the highest terms by many critics, especially Ruskin, became a full Royal Academician while still in his twenties, never lacked for patrons and died a wealthy man. By contrast his great contemporary and rival, John Constable, whose art seems much less radical to our eyes, had a much harder struggle to establish himself.
Leigh's purpose in making the film was to "examine the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world." This tension is something very obvious in the film. Turner, especially in later life, was noted for his eccentricity. Unlike many working-class Georgians and Victorians who rose in the world, he never attempted to hide his humble origins. He was untidy, had no social graces and could be rude and tactless. He never married but had a number of mistresses. He was estranged from the first of these, Sarah Danby, and refused to acknowledge his two illegitimate daughters by her. (Sarah appears in the film as do two other mistresses, Hannah Danby Sarah's niece and Turner's housekeeper and Sophia Booth, a seaside landlady).
And yet this uncouth, boorish-seeming man was an artist not only of genius but also of a deep spirituality. His obsession with accurately recording light and atmospheric conditions- he once had himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he could paint a snowstorm- was born not only of a concern with fidelity to nature but also of a belief that light was a visible manifestation of the Divine. (His last words are said to have been "The sun is God").
How, then, could any actor hope to play so contradictory an individual? The answer to this question comes from Timothy Spall, one of Leigh's favourite actors. Spall is someone I have normally thought of as a "character actor", but here he gets the chance to prove himself as a leading man and makes the most of it. His Turner is a grumpy old man, and in his dealings with women something of a dirty old man as well, forever grunting and spitting and forever speaking in a sort of Cockney whine, and yet we are never allowed to forget that underneath his unpromising exterior he is a sublime artist. This is probably the finest performance I have seen Spall give; it won him "Best Actor" at the Cannes Film Festival and I hope that the Academy will bear him in mind when it comes to next year's Oscars. There is insufficient space to single out all the deserving supporting performances, although I should mention Martin Savage as Turner's friend and fellow-painter Benjamin Haydon, forever trying to borrow money off him, Paul Jesson as Turner's father, to whom he was very close, and Joshua McGuire in a comic turn as an effeminate, lisping Ruskin, very different to the way Greg Wise portrayed him in the recent "Effie Gray".
The other outstanding feature of the film is its visual beauty. Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope were clearly aiming to make it one of those films where every shot looks like a painting in its own right, and certainly succeed in this ambition. Some cinematic biographies of great artists, such as "Girl with a Pearl Earring" about Vermeer, do succeed in capturing the distinctive "look" of their subject, but I think that Leigh and Pope were not actually aiming to make every shot look like a Turner; their palette of colours, for example, is rather too muted for that. Possibly they felt that the peculiar luminosity of Turner's work would be too difficult to reproduce on film. There are, however, some memorable shots, such as the opening scene by the river in Holland, complete with windmill, and the one where Turner watches "the fighting Temeraire" being towed up the Thames, thereby getting the inspiration for one of his best-known works.
I am not sure if "Mr Turner" quite justifies the label "masterpiece" which some have tried to pin on it; it can at times be too slow-moving for that. Spall's wonderful acting, however, and Pope's striking cinematography make it a film that stands out from the crowd. 8/10