‘Mr Turner’ or ‘the day I went out and watched a film’

You know I’m not a fan of films, that I find them to be a brash and low form of entertainment with little artistic merit – bright thrills, cheap lights and a mish mash of jaded ephemera. So it is very rarely that I will watch a film on TV or DVD and in the last fifteen years I have only been to the cinema five times. However, I did want to see ‘Mr Turner’. I liked the subject, the lead actor and intimations that the director had cinematic integrity.

So we went to the Watershed, we sat in the centre of the cinema, and we had our viewing. Now I’ve reflected a little, here are a few sprawling thoughts. ‘Mr Turner’ is a long film, it is slow and there isn’t that much plot. All of these things I liked very much. It didn’t feel long, rather it seemed to be spacious. It covered the last twenty-five years of the artist J.M.W. Turner’s life, but it wasn’t frantic about packing in every detail of every day. It followed the meanderings of one man’s life – no clear trajectory, but a sense of purpose. It was beautifully shot and intelligently acted, but at no point did it overpower, or transcend the paintings it was depicting.

Timothy Spall was great as Turner – by strokes taciturn and capacious, curmudgeonly and generous, driven and hesitant. He attacked canvases as if he had been painting all his life, yet at the same time showed the eccentric awkwardness of Turner’s style, his unconventional and mercuric use of the medium. True, there were moments when his snorting and grunting did tempt me to shout ‘ma pig, ma pig’ at the screen, as elements of Spall’s recent Lord Emsworth oozed out, but his portrayal of the artist as an old hog was full-blooded, committed and compelling. However, the rest of the cast were also on top form. Dorothy Atkinson was quietly and understatedly brilliant as Hannah Danby, Turner’s psoriasis plagued London housekeeper who he treated roughly, exploited sexually and generally ignored. She stalked the house with a haunted, lovelorn and subservient air, her face in close-up showing conflict, resignation and passion in equal measure. Martin Savage was also excellent – wired, contradictory, conspiracy riddled, impotently angry and precocious as Benjamin Haydon, the talented artist who could never reach to the heights he yearned for, fell out with everyone and eventually committed suicide. Joshua McGuire was cheerfully ridiculous as art critic John Ruskin – a portrait of a wise fool which may owe more to director Mike Leigh’s attitude towards critics than any contemporary accounts of such an influential and intelligent man. Of the rest, well there was a tendency for the cast of ‘Larkrise’ to pop up all over the screen, but this was a British costume drama and you can forgive them for jumping at the opportunity to don the breeches and flash their bonnets once again.

Indeed the costumes and the sets were lush and lovely, redolent and detailed, however, there were times – such as the harbourside at Margate – where all that detail seemed just a touch too contrived, and I was reminded of some of the carefully crafted, precision built railway models I have seen, where no rivet is out of place yet the scene doesn’t quite breathe and live. What was wonderful was the cinematography. This was certainly a film to see on a big, wide screen, not on a little box at home. Which is, of course, the same as Turner’s huge and expansive cameras. I loved the opening – Turner on the coastal wall in Holland – with its linear form and vast openeness – and the contrast with the internal scenes where we were boxed into a room and shots were cropped tight around faces. Space was used carefully – from Turner’s homes to the galleries of the Royal Academy, to the drawing room at Petworth, so that architecture hemmed in thoughts and action with a smoggy urban hug. Which made it all the more breathtaking – if sometimes obviously so – when Turner stepped out of the city and traversed, explored, observed and then experimented with the breadth, depth, height and unseen dimensions of landscape. If anything spoiled this painterly vision of the film it was some of the artistic set pieces. The light in the opening scene was reminiscent of Van Ruisdael, at one point Turner posed as a very Caspar David Friedrich übermensch, passengers on a steamer found it impossible to pass up a chance to impersonate Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘The Last of England’ and many of the interiors were lit with the clarity of Vermeer. Then there were the moments when a self-consciously Turneresque scene accidently slipped across the screen rather elaborate set-ups for great paintings appeared. One occurred with Turner and fellow artists in a ferry toasting the aged battleship Temeraire as it was towed by a black smoke belching steam tug up the Thames in the evening sunlight to be broken up. Another was the blur of a speed demon steam train, also blasting coal black smoke into the otherwise pristine air, hurtling along an embankment as it dragged the country into modernity. Prettily done, cutting quickly across to Turner’s 1844 painting ‘Rain, steam and speed’, his depiction of a GWR broad gauge train, although I don’t think the locomotive in the film was actually Great Western.

At the end of the day I’m not sure that I learnt much about Turner, or that I liked the character that Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall gave us. There was a disquieting vulnerability about him which I could identify with, but any real insight into his motives and methods, into the spark of originality which made him so pioneering and forceful a genius were hard to find. However, I was enthralled and entertained by the whole film product, its theatricality, vision, colour and clarity contrasting with a lingering unease at some of Turner’s not so happy little ways. ‘Mr Turner’ was a beautifully crafted treat but no match for a trip round the Tate’s Clore Gallery to spend time with the big, bold, tangled, pearlescent, pellucid and prophetic paintings themselves.

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