Light Moments
By Nick Pinkerton

Mr. Turner
Dir. Mike Leigh, U.K., Sony Pictures Classics

There is a scene in the 2010 documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, in which the late cinematographer, discussing his influences, leads a tour of England’s National Gallery, giving particular attention to the works of Joseph Mallord William Turner, J. M. W. to his friends. If you want to see a film whose palette approximates that of Turner’s canvases in their pulse-racing brilliance, their delineation and accentuation of the effects of light, I would recommend you to something shot by Cardiff—Conan the Destroyer, say, or Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which has some nice maritime images.

Mr. Turner, an unconventional biopic of England’s most famous landscape painter from director Mike Leigh, does not endeavor to show the world as seen by Turner, but to show Turner in the world. It is a movie about a man who isn’t particularly pretty—neither physically nor morally—but who produces beautiful things. The film begins, as it ought to, with the sun, yellow and jaundiced behind a thin scrim of cloud cover. When first we see Turner, portrayed by Timothy Spall, he is on a sketching tour of the Low Countries. There is no on-screen title here, nor will one ever appear to signify the passage of time, and the date is never spoken aloud. Through reference made to an explosion in Ostend upon the painter’s return to England, we can set the year of the film’s opening to late 1825, when the painter was fifty. It concludes with the immediate aftermath of Turner’s death, which occurred in 1851, when he was seventy-six, and hopscotches along the timeline in-between.

Mr. Turner elides entirely what one would think to be the more alluring aspects of such a project. As Leigh’s film begins, Turner is already a prosperous and well-established artist, a respected member of the Royal Academy, comfortably installed at his studio and gallery at 47 Queen Anne Street. As the movie heads towards its close, fellow artists have begun to look askance at his increasingly abstract canvases, such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters, and he is at one point openly jeered by the public. There is no starving in a garret and rise to fame spurred by ambition here, only a long, slow, decline in health if not, necessarily, in artistic prowess.

The film is, in fact, bookended by two slow declines. Before Turner’s comes that of his father, William (Paul Jesson), also an invaluable helpmate in administering to his son’s affairs, who died in 1829. Turner is rarely so likable as he is when with the man he calls “old daddy,” formerly a Covent Garden barber, with whom he interacts with familiar warmth, ease, and even jollity. This is perhaps because, in these moments, Turner’s social anxiety seems temporarily to abate—later, he will find a kind of respite from the pressures of his social existence by shacking up with a widow, keeping up a second household under the homely sobriquet “Mr. Mallord” and letting on to no one that he is an artist of renown. Turner is a product of the working class and still bears the marks of his origins in his speech. He drops his aitches, and his vocabulary moves freely between homely turns of phrase (“’e’s a cracked pot” and “witch’s tit”) and high-flown allusions—when off to bed he announces his intent to throw himself “into the arms of Morpheus,” while elsewhere he refers to “Helios poppin’ ‘is ‘ead above the parapet.” The rest is an elaborate system of snorts, grunts, growls, and harrumphs—Turner has a thousand different registers of these, for every occasion and mood, most of them foul. The state of genius, or at least of Turner’s genius, would appear to be that of perpetually having something caught in one’s throat—and there may be something to this, for on a Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, in which exhibiting painters touch up their work before an audience, Turner expectorates on his own canvas.

Altogether, Spall’s performance about squares with the description of Turner that comes to us from a lady of long acquaintance, who recalled his voice as “deep and husky, and full of feelings; his sentences broken but letting out flashes of wit and humor, almost involuntarily.” Though this Turner is no prize specimen—Spall juts and droops his bottom lip, looking like a Punch caricature made flesh—he nevertheless keeps a wide circle of those female acquaintances. As a regular visitor to Margate, a seaside town accessible by steam packet from London, he boards with a woman named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey)—it’s she who, after the death of her husband, will become Turner’s lover, eventually taking up with him in his second London residence, where he lives incognito. All of this is done behind the back of Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner’s housekeeper and custodian of some thirty years, with whom it has widely been speculated that he carried on an affair, confirmed as fact in the world of the film. (They are seen in one brief, furtive, frantic coupling, more a biological convenience than an expression of love.) Despite Ms. Danby’s unwavering service, Turner grows to prefer his other life and neglects his primary residence and the company of Ms. Danby, who is rendered increasingly unsightly by creeping psoriasis. In tandem with her decline, Spall’s Turner begins to turn into something like Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, with a mouthful of dead teeth and the manner of a rooting, snorting hog.

Leigh’s approach is that of a character study, in which vignettes are selected for their ability to reveal the various, seemingly contradictory facets of Turner’s personality as he is viewed, as it were, in the round. He is a loyal, loving son but a shabby father, failing to attend the funeral of Georgina, the younger of his two illegitimate daughters with Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), Hannah’s aunt and Turner’s former mistress. When making a nugatory loan to his friend and fellow artist, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), Turner, proud of the professional comportment that has allowed his independence, lambastes Haydon for his lack of these same qualities. (Later, in one of the moments of impulsive sentiment that mark Turner’s character, he cancels the debt.) Turner can be brutal and tender with women by turns, yet sits to listen to a lecture by the female scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) with evident respect and admiration. As to the purpose served by scenes with the critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), depicted here as a pompous ass with the most widiculous lisp since Michael Palin in The Life of Brian, I am not sure what it can be other than to show that sometimes it is just as horrible to have someone champion your work as to have them reject it. Later in the film, Turner, with a pained expression, watches a play in which his patrons are depicted as fey, prattling dupes, though in the character of Ruskin Leigh seems to echo the attitude of the anonymous playwright.

Mr. Turner covers, as I have said, a quarter century in Turner’s life, as well as the same period in the life of his nation as it affects Turner, and is processed through his art. In imagining the process whereby this happens, the movie is often quite literal-minded, dutifully setting up and knocking down cause-and-effect scenes: on an excursion on the Thames, Turner, and friends sight the HMS Temeraire, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, being escorted to its final destination by a steam tug and lo, what should result but The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up! Elsewhere, Turner observes the new railway and, presto, produces Rain, Steam, and Speed! The one story about Turner which nearly everyone who has heard his name knows, in which he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship during a nocturnal snowstorm so to observe the elemental chaos firsthand, is wedged in and handled rather perfunctorily—Leigh is far better when handling petty details, like the bit in which Turner frets over bluebells that have accumulated in the herring net draped from the ceiling of his gallery.

Among the last of the film’s march-of-time episodes involves Turner sitting to have his daguerreotype taken by a photographer, J. E. Mayall (Leo Bill), whose newfangled device he is exceedingly curious about, and which he imagines as making the canvas-and-brush artist obsolete. What is unclear is why Turner, when he has been steadily drifting further and further away from the representational in his art, would see the camera box itself as a threat. But then, while he certainly seems to be aware of the effect the changes in his style have on others—mostly negative the further he goes in pursuance of them—it is also unclear as to if he knows what, precisely, he is doing, if his abstraction is intentional or if, instead, his eyesight really is failing.

Turner is only to the point when he expresses his distastes—at least as Leigh and Spall imagine them—but we get very little idea of Turner’s attitude toward his own work. We see him scoff, in passing, at an exhibition of work by the painters of the upstart Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We also see him barely tolerating the prattling, self-amused Ruskin, showing another bit of clairvoyance when, a little pissed at dinner and seated next to the critic’s young wife, Effie Gray, he seems to predict her eventual abandonment of the pipsqueak. (I imagined for a moment Leigh having made a film of their unconsummated marriage—talk about Bleak Moments!)

Mr. Turner concerns two different planes of existence. The first is that of mundanities: commissions to be fulfilled and bills to be paid and ultramarine going up to a guinea a bladder and, yes, seminal vesicles to be routinely emptied. It is the world of everyday, practical concerns, the world in which all of us live, whether we should like to or not. The second is that of art, whereby the everyday is transmuted into something else, in this case through the medium of J. M. W. Turner. In effect, what Leigh shows us is the world passing in one end of Turner and out the other—into the eye and out through the brush—while what happens in-between remains unknown and, perhaps, unknowable.

That Mr. Turner doesn’t endeavor to explain its subject isn’t a demerit, but aside from a single doted-over performance, from Spall, it doesn’t offer a great deal in its stead. Of Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, David Thomson wrote that it was “that rare thing, a biopic in which the great man is in some ways less fascinating than the other characters.” It would be unfair to hold any film to the standard of Pialat’s, one of the finest of its type, were it not for the fact that Leigh has periodically shown himself capable of equaling it. Thinking of Leigh’s Naked, I can remember offhand the performances of not only David Thewlis but also Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp, Ewen Bremner, and Peter Wight. Save for Jesson’s bright-eyed and brittle Turner Sr., I cannot imagine any of the supporting cast in Mr. Turner achieving the same longevity—the subject’s isolate solipsism is not merely depicted, but tacitly reinforced. And though I would venture to guess that the seventy-one year-old Leigh finds something heroic in his subject’s adoption of an experimental “late style,” his own displays more serenity than the brio and boldness of Turner, who was reported to boast “I am the real lion. I am the great lion of the day.” The result is a decidedly earthbound tribute to an artist who kept his eyes on the sun.