JMW Turner and John Constable were two of the finest painters in Nineteenth century England renowned for their emotional response to nature and are classified as exponents of romanticism and eventually emerging as major contributors to modernism in painting. Mike Leigh’s film and original screenplay gives ample scope for movie viewers to appreciate the work of JMW Turner anew. However, the film is not as much about his paintings as it is about the man who made the paintings.
Mike Leigh deliberately titled the film Mr Turner. Now what’s in a name, one would ask? The obvious reason is the film is more about the man and much less about his paintings. The initials “JMW” are replaced with “Mr.” Even in the film, very few addresses the painter as Mr Turner. Even the physicians, who treated him towards his last days, addressed him reverently as the famous painter “Turner.” JMW stood for Joseph Mallord William. In the film, when Turner wants to hide his true identity while renting a room to stay he calls himself “Mallard” not even by his little known middle name Mallord. Those close to him addressed him as William or Billy. And to some he was just Mr Booth, the “husband” of his landlady. And Turner straddled two worlds with equal felicity—the world of the nobility and the rich and educated and the world of the poorer sections of society including maidservants, not-very-rich landladies, and prostitutes. The title “Mr” adds a degree of respectability to a man who conventional society may not deem respectable. The title “Mr” also avoids a degree of intimacy that his father and some of his admirers among the nobles had for the painter when they called him William.
|Turner (Timothy Spall) after dramatically adding the touch of red to his painting, |
an idea he picked up from Constable's painting with lots of red
Leigh’s stated reason to make the movie Mr Turner was to “examine the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.” And Leigh succeeded in a not so obvious way. Had Leigh cast someone other than Timothy Spall in the title role who looked more like the young and dashing JMW Turner in his self-portrait, some purists would have appreciated that fact. But Mr Spall who plays an older Turner, does not resemble the self portrait by a mile. But instead what Leigh made Spall do was to make him learn to paint as Turner would have painted, over a period of 2 years. Mr Spall is presented by Leigh as a Turner with awful teeth—and there is evidence that the artist had indeed major dental problems in his later years. Leigh and Spall together succeed in creating a flawed personality, physically and mentally, which Turner apparently was. Not many would totally ignore his own flesh and blood—and Turner ignored the two children born to Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) , publicly and never stayed with Sarah Danby in later life giving greater importance to his work. Leigh cleverly shows Spall’s fingers curling in anguish, only visible to the camera and not to others in the room, as he interacts with Sarah Danby and his daughter. Towards the end of his life, Spall’s Turner is equally dismissive of another lady in his life, his faithful maid servant Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) with whom he had several sexual trysts, though she cared for him at all times. He would at best enquire about her health and well being, when in close proximity.
But why did he behave in this manner? Leigh provides the answers to any perceptible viewer. Turner’s mother went insane while Turner was young and she made his and his father’s life miserable. On his death bed, Turner Sr admonishes his son “Show her respect. The bitch..” when Turner Jr speaks disparagingly about his mother, who had made life hell for both. Evidently, this had much to do with Turner’s disdain for most women as depicted in the film.
|Turner (Timothy Spall) often ignores his faithful housemaid|
Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson)
But Leigh’s intelligent script shows yet another side of Turner the painter. There is a subtle insinuation that Turner finds Miss Coggins, the piano player, in a nobleman’s house attractive, as after staring at her, he comments “Exceedingly beautiful.” Miss Coggins, being prim and proper, makes no further move to come closer to Turner. For the viewer, the deft editing of the film’s sequence suggests that the comment was not about the music being played by Miss Coggins as it was about the lady’s visage that caught the painter’s attention. Turner makes a similar comment much later in the film “You are a woman of profound beauty,” to Mrs Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady, and it is Mrs Booth, less sophisticated than Miss Coggins, who takes the initiative and drags him into her bedroom following his overtures. Earlier before the relationship with Mrs Booth bloomed, the script has Turner getting heady on wine during a dinner and making a comment to an attractive lady sitting next to him “Loneliness and solitude, ‘tis not the same.” There is much to admire in Leigh’s scriptwriting skills.
|Turner (Timothy Spall) and Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey): a change of attitude |
The high point of Mr Turner the film for this critic was the incident where the painter goes to a brothel not for sex but to paint the prostitute lying in bed. While painting, the otherwise gruff Turner breaks down in tears. Was he thinking of his mother, was he thinking of his daughters? Mike Leigh’s Turner is a complex character—one that you can pity, one that you can dislike, and one you can admire, all in equal measure.
|Turner at work capturing light and landscape|
This is in contrast to the superb opening sequence of the film, where two young Dutch milkmaids walk by close to where Turner is standing taking feverish notes of the sky and dawn. Here Turner does not care for women or people as others would have in his place. He is preoccupied capturing the magic of light and landscape.
Leigh’s Turner is a man with a mission--to paint and earn world recognition for England. He was born poor but he painted his way to success, money and education (his apartment has many shelves of books)—an incredible achievement for the son of a barber and wigmaker.
|Dick Pope's magical cinematography|
When one views the film Mr Turner, it is not the painter alone that you admire: you admire the filmmakers and their obvious individual commitment to good cinema. You like Timothy Spall not because he is attractive on screen but the effort he has taken to grow into the role of an often dislikeable individual, grunting and spitting. You admire Dorothy Atkinson’s drab and ugly role as Hannah Danby, the psoriasis-stricken dutiful maid-servant who has been so faithful to the painter. You admire Dick Pope’s brilliant cinematography that makes the film so watchable and you wonder at the pains he taken to match the landscapes and seascapes that so fascinated the painter. You hear with awe of the commendable pains Leigh and Pope took to get the right shots of the steam locomotive, which was not achieved in a studio as many Hollywood films would have preferred to do.
|Director Mike Leigh and Dick Pope's collaboration:foreground of admirers |
in black and shadows,
while Turner dramatically adds red to his painting
Another unforgettable sequence in the film is of Turner and Constable together displaying their works to the admiration of peers and art lovers at the Royal Society exhibit. Leigh’s Turner goes around the hall giving positive comments and suggestions to his peers but avoids making any comment on the work of Constable. Constable’s work has a lot of red dabs of paint which makes it stand out from the rest. Turner’s work on the other hand is admirable but lacks colour. Turner procures a brush of red paint and creates a red blob on his painting’s seascape, apparently ruining it, to the shock of his admirers including Constable. After some time Turner returns dramatically and uses his fingernail and cloth to reshape the blob into a buoy floating on the water. Turner got the idea to improve his painting by noticing Constable’s use of red colour in his painting. This is the only scene in the film where Turner’s active artistic skills are shown in such detail.
Where does Leigh’s Mr Turner stand among great films on painters? Luciano Salce’s El Greco (1966) with Mel Ferrer as the painter and the music of Ennio Morricone, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) are all lovely films of a similar kind. For this critic, Leigh’s Mr Turner and Salce’s El Greco tower over the rest as a complete cinema experience. While Leigh’s film won the Best Actor award for Timothy Spall and the Vulcan Prize for Dick Pope for his cinematography at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film failed to win a single Oscar though nominated in four categories. However, Mr Turner is undeniably Mike Leigh’s best work and Dick Pope’s best work to date.
|Not a painting--its the cinematography of Dick Pope|
As a student of aesthetics, who earned a postgraduate degree in the subject from Bombay University, this critic has been an admirer of both Turner and Constable and have spent valuable time studying their original paintings on display at various museums and galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. Turner was a “master of light”, a harbinger of the revolutionary modernist impressionism and expressionism that bloomed much after his demise. Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner helps a student of art to appreciate his paintings even further by putting the painter’s psychological perspectives in focus while viewing his paintings. Thank you, Mr Leigh, for your creditable effort in putting it all together. It is a mature work that sadly the Oscars missed to honour but Cannes recognized. That matters.
P.S. Mr Turner is one of the top 10 films of 2015 viewed by the author.
P.S. Mr Turner is one of the top 10 films of 2015 viewed by the author.