Mr. Turner

January 12, 2015
Timothy Spall in 'Mr. Turner' (2014)
Timothy Spall in 'Mr. Turner' (2014)

“Turner’s thoughts were much deeper than ordinary men can penetrate,” said his friend, George Jones, “and much deeper than he could at any time describe.” He might have been reviewing Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which captures all the quirks and contradictions of Britain’s greatest artist.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), was a giant among landscape painters, but Leigh is a formidable portraitist. There is no ‘story’ per se in this bio-pic, only a condensed version of the last 25 years of the artist’s life. The real Turner was famously mean, but prone to bursts of generosity. He said little, but was in so much love with words that he penned a long poem called The Fallacies of Hope. To his fellow artist, David Roberts, “the same mystery that pervades his works seemed to pervade his conversation.”

Timothy Spall’s performance in the lead role is a masterclass in how to make an inarticulate character ‘speak’ to an audience. Spall’s Turner communicates in grunts, murmurs, throat-clearings and sullen silences. When he talks it is in a shrewd, considered, manner. Nothing he says is gratuitous, nothing can be taken for granted. He can be calculating, self-interested, cruel and vulgar, yet prey to surprising displays of emotion.

Jones recalls Turner bursting into tears in front of a painting by Claude Lorrain. Leigh captures the moment, but in a very different context, as the artist engages a young prostitute as a model. He wishes to show that a man who was capable of disavowing his children – to the extent that he did not attend his daughter’s funeral – still had a heart and a conscience.

When the film begins, Turner is already a famous artist with his own gallery in Harley Street. His “Daddy”, William Sr. (Paul Jessop) acts as studio assistant – running errands, grinding colours, stretching and priming canvases. The third member of this makeshift family is Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), a devoted, slovenly housekeeper with a blotchy face. It was a persistent rumour that Hannah, who came to work for Turner in 1809, at the age of 23, also served as his mistress.

Leigh shows Turner clutching at Hannah in passing, and venting his lust as if freeing himself from an irritating itch. His love-making – short, brutish and fully-clothed – seems disturbingly plausible.

What we do not learn is that Hannah was the niece of Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), the woman with whom Turner fathered two illegitimate daughters. In Sarah’s every appearance she speaks and acts like one of the Furies, while Turner sulks and scowls. That is a chapter of his life he considers closed. His new romantic interests will be pursued in Margate, where he goes to paint seascapes. His object of desire is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady of his preferred boarding house, whom he proclaims a veritable “Aphrodite”.

At this time Turner’s seniority at the Royal Academy is beyond dispute, although he is still derided for his unconventional methods. Leigh can’t resist including the famous story about how Turner upstaged Constable on varnishing day by placing a single dab of red in the middle of a grey-toned marine picture.

Anyone who knows a little about Turner’s life will recognise the familiar quotations and anecdotes, although the material has been used with considerable licence. The most notorious criticisms of the artist’s work are taken from the newspapers and put in the mouths of gallery-goers. A story Turner told about being tied to the mast of a boat so he could observe a storm at sea, is taken as a fact, although it was almost certainly a Homeric fiction.

In another scene the artist eavesdrops on the contemptuous comments of the young Queen Victoria.

For the record, Queen Vic’s favourite artist was Winterhalter. Turner, who was covetous of honours, would never be knighted, although he watched many minor daubers receive this mark of royal favour.

Leigh has been attacked for his portrayal of the famous critic, John Ruskin, who began writing encomiums to Turner’s genius at the age of 17. In this movie the youthful Ruskin (John McGuire) is a preening, precocious little twerp who speaks with a comical lisp. It may be unfair but it’s painfully funny. Having chewed my way through a large helping of Ruskin’s purple prose, and the biographies, I was taken aback by this portrait but won over by its wicked humour.

The success of this movie owes much to the brilliance of the acting, and the chemistry between the director and his leading man. The other aspect of Mr. Turner that can’t fail to impress is the detail-perfect snapshot of Britain in the first half of the 19th century, ably captured by Dick Pope’s cinematography. It’s a memorable evocation of an age and a personality. It’s also one of the most remarkable films ever made about the life of an artist. Don’t expect Moulin Rouge or Lust for Life. Mr. Turner is a monument to every negative quality that made Britain great.

Mr. Turner
Written & directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Ruth Sheen, Joshua McGuire
UK/France/Germany, rated M, 150 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th January, 2015.