Re:View – ‘Mr. Turner’
Anyone who has worked extensively with artists will notice a paradox; you can rarely see the art inside of them, for who they are is not what they produce. Mike Leigh makes the case strongly in his biography of William Turner, the Victorian artist who became the master of light on canvas at a time when the Royal Academy members were intent on producing coy cod-medieval moral parables.
Leigh makes his point bluntly by turning Turner into a pig; from his bulky carriage and porcine demeanour to his snuffling, grunting utterances, it’s clear that while Turner’s thoughts are toward reproductions of the sublime, his carcass is in the sty. Timothy Spall, who I’ve always found a fine but limited actor, goes all out here, and Leigh presents the analogy so plainly that in an early scene we even see a pig’s head being shaved and prepared for supper. ‘I am a grotesque,’ Turner decides, seeing himself in the glass.
This is not to say that Turner is incapable of fine thought; he has a lively, questing nature, and here’s another paradox; even as he determines to pin the force and fury of nature to his paper, he is fascinated by the coming age of iron and steam as the innovations of the industrial revolution burst into Victorian society, bringing trains, ships and buildings that will change the way the world works. But he presents these marvels in context to the world, still dwarfed by natural, violent forces.
The film covers the last quarter century of Turner’s life, so we find him already a master of the academy, although not as at odds with his fellow artists as we’d expect; these fellows work together, after all. It’s a male society, of course (and still is – Britain has produced few female artists of note. Say Tracy Emin and I will come amongst you with a cudgel). There’s clear respect for his co-workers here, where the only really sour note is struck by Haydon (Martin Savage), an impecunious artist whose embittered, wheedling nature is his own undoing. The patrons are rich and twittish but nevertheless generous, the art is produced and sold. We have no war of words – there’s no Ruskin accusing Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, and while the clients wax lyrical about Turner’s art, he’s more concerned with getting the bluebottles out of the drapes.
Instead, we see what Turner sees. Chromatic light, the war in the heavens, maritime abstractions which render the quicksilver impossible on canvas – and the coming of photography that will finally pin down these elusive shards, bringing with it the obsolescence of traditional art. The lack of conflict makes for slow drama, but luckily there are the women, from Ruth Sheen’s mother of his illegitimate daughters, Mrs Danby, all bitterness and indignity (it’s not explained that she is the sister of the put-upon, scrofulous maid who valiantly waits upon Turner and is ill-rewarded) and the marvellous landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). These two last women are contrasted after Turner’s death by their attitudes, one weeping, one smiling at the sunlight.
At two and a half hours the leisurely rhythm of the artist’s life is a demanding watch, but as always with Leigh, will stick in the mind like horse-glue. With ‘Topsy-Turvey’ before it and this, Leigh seems eager to explore the artist in late fame. Whereas the former film was able to present Gilbert & Sullivan as masters of language and music and therefore press into service elements of broad comedy and song, this study requires a more meditative process, where wide shots of cliffs, sea and sunrises cannot at first be differentiated – photography or art? I imagine a little discreet CGI work helped that idea on its way.
Leigh now seems more confident in showing the past. ‘Topsy-Turvey’ hardly left the confinement of the interiors for fear of falling into the Sherlock Holmes trap of presenting history as a bunch of scenes from ‘Oliver!’ Here he depicts Margate and Chelsea with élan. But astride and front-centre is Spall’s magnificent performance.