Film Review: Mr Turner

Mike Leigh’s latest work, Mr Turner, is the first feature film to portray the life of the famous 19th Century British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner.

The opening scene provides the audience with the first taste of the contrasts that are a thematic feature that director Mike Leigh weaves through the storyline. We set our eyes on a hot summer’s day, the camera focussing on a windmill by a canal in a lush green meadow, somewhere in rural Holland; a stunning view for a landscape painting. As the shot widens, the viewer gets his first glimpse of Turner who makes a striking contrast against the backdrop; a silhouette of a short, stout man gazing into the distance.

Turner was a revolutionary for his time because, unlike his contemporaries, he painted not just what he saw, but also what he felt about it. Cinematographer Dick Pope deserves full credit for successfully conveying this by providing us with a feast for the eyes, capturing stunning scenery throughout the film and contrasting it with the urban life Turner leads. He excels in not only showing what Turner would have seen; rolling meadows; stormy seas; a crimson sunset over still water; but also in conveying the emotions in these magnificent exhibits of nature through his fantastic colour palette which, incidentally, is based on that of Turner’s.

The beauty of the scenery is contrasted with Turner himself who, though skilled in producing captivating works of art, was not much to look at himself (certainly if Timothy Spall’s portrayal of him is anything to go by). Turner does not come across as very eloquent; Spall portrays Turner through a feral-like galaxy of grunts, snorts and growls. Turner was unorthodox for his times, not only in his unique depictions of landscapes but also his technique; on numerous occassions we see him using his spit to mix and blend the colours in his work, not hesitating to hawk back a blob of phlegm in front of his Royal Academy contemporaries to deposit it directly onto the canvas. Not for a nanosecond does Spall fall out of character, a worthy feat for a lengthy 150 minute feature.

Turner is portrayed as a man laden with contradictions, particularly in his interactions with women. Despite his effortless ability to channel his feelings in his art, Turner appears indifferent to his daughters from his former mistress Sarah Danby, refusing to acknowledge them as his own despite their mother’s repeated visits with them to his door. Not even the death of the younger of the daughters appears to evoke any emotion from Turner. He has a low opinion of his long-deceased mother, and abuses the love his housekeeper Hannah Danby harbours for him, who was devoted to Turner for forty years until his death.

As Turner grows older, Leigh succeeds in forcing the audience to re-evaluate Turner. His permanently scruffy and sometimes repulsive appearance shows a man unconcerned by worldly desires such as fine clothes and money (though perhaps not as far as women are concerned). He decides, out of sympathy or generosity, to write off the debt of a contemporary at the Royal Academy who, unlike himself, is unable to achieve success in his artwork and, somewhat similar to Turner, does not live in domestic bliss. When offered one hundred thousand pounds for his entire collection by a pen-nib manufacturer millionaire, Turner not only turns the offer down, but informs the man that his works will be left to the British public to be seen “gratis”.

Leigh explores Turner’s more tender side through the relationship with his father, whose death is a turning point in Turner’s life and in the film. Turner weeps uncontrollably and a noticeable change begins to become reflected in his artwork. This more emotional and endearing side of Turner is further reinforced as he strikes up the first meaningful relationship he has with a woman throughout the film. Sophia Booth, who in the beginning knew nothing of his art, his fame or of his urban life in the capital, forged a deeper connection with Turner than any other woman was able to.

The film is punctuated by a few laughs; most notably the portrayal of John Ruskin as a snobby, lisping prude who prattles on about the symbolism behind Turner’s paintings to deaf ears. The Guardian’s Philip Hoare has in response proclaimed he would like to ‘sue’ Leigh on behalf of Ruskin. When asked about this threat after the film screening, Leigh seemed unfazed, attributing it to a “sense of humour deficiency” on Hoare’s part.

While Leigh weaves the story together with a combination of great acting and fantastic cinematography, the film is just too long given that there is no real climax. It is ultimately just a story about the twilight years of an artist who was also a man (or a man who just happened to be a genius artist), and the very normal, very mundane occurrences in his day to day life. This is hardly surprising; like most of Leigh’s work, his focus is on the everyday comings and goings that shape a man’s life. Leigh is true to this realistic portrayal to the end. He could have chosen to end the film on the uplifting scene of Mrs Booth smiling at a fond memory of Turner; instead, it ends on the weeping, hunched, and diseased form of Hannah Danby, a ghost left to roam the now empty Turner house. When I asked Leigh why he chose not to leave us with something more uplifting, he explained that this was just how he wanted to end the film. Hannah lived with and served Turner for forty years, and while he eventually left her living on her own in his house (to be with Sophia Booth), she remained a loyal housekeeper despite her unrequited love. Leigh’s choice of ending is indicative of his dedication to portraying life in its most realistic form, which he has done before such as in Secrets and Lies (1996). Leigh sees and portrays life as “both comic and tragic”. While it is not necessarily what all viewers want to experience when trying to get away from reality at the cinema, his dedication to showing everyday life in its rawest, most realistic form is admirable given the unrealistic characters and storylines that are now mass produced out of Hollywood.

Mr Turner is released in cinemas nationwide this Friday 31st October 2014. The Tate Gallery is also currently holding an exhibition of some of the work Turner produced in his later years.