Mr Turner : A Film Review

MR TURNER : Director Mike Leigh, UK, 2hrs 30mins.
Cast. Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson.
A Sketch At Margate
Few painters can express in paint the union of sea and land where neither is what is and the line of difference is less than the hair of an artists brush.
So finite is the allegory of unshifting nature beyond our understanding still, the medium of paint continues to be relied on, more than film, than science in its numerical data chase as we stand in awe when confronted with something akin to the emotions conjured up through our brief understanding lives. It was not a suppression of detail that John Turner relied on but the re-calibration of the art of painting he saw fit to pursue.
It was a different way of painting with both fine drawing and abstraction in harmonious fusion. Quite different from being a form of abstraction which unfortunately is the route the film tends to take and represent rather confoundingly.
JMWT was a talisman of paints complex behaviour; of the complex correlation with the ‘abstract’ which JMWT unleashed signaled his the genius. He created a certain body with the touch of realism in his finite detail.
He is known as the seascape painter but I have seen gardens of stately homes painted in moderately sized landscape as a deliverance with a few balustrades, evenness of a lawn in the foreground peppered with a few fallen leaves or the cut of an upturned edge chopped by a croquet stick or such. There is a draughtsmanship apparent in those paintings putting away the false perception of ‘abstraction’ and the moderate size of the one I refer to also gives notice to the fact he was in fact a studious miniaturist and his sketchbooks were the beginning for larger works.
That country scene is an imperious view out to a formal exposition of perspective laid before in the carefully planted trees and curvilinear lines of a country estate managed as far as the eye could see. And it could see, into the plain peintre célèbre of the master sky containing minisule rendering of red over white and under blue.

So he was not only the master of painting the wild sea or lofty ships pulled into harbour by the David tugboats returning the exhausted hulk of the floating ship. The sea eating the land, the land swallowing the sea.
All was before JMWT.
Canvas Cinema
To discover something of the person who created those paintings Mike Leigh has cast the lion hearted chivalrous character of Timothy Spall.
That symbol of plucky, high spirited, undaunted, mercurial thespian open to the odd moment of self indulgent hubristic self flattery.
There is no self doubt in JMWT. His life is cluttered up with his willfulness. Of his domestic life there is a disarrangement only he could explain without the added question of justifying it. It is a side of him which casts him as restless mentally. His painting did not make him alert to persuasive, meaningful intellectual discovery. It was not something he appeared to think possible and this made his mental state and need to paint a fury.
It was part of the driven intensity which broached other whose path he crossed. The film has him in an important element avoiding his fame and how he is perceived. His need is to discover himself through cunning and a retrieval of his true self identity by entering other worlds under plain anonymity.
The film opens with him in Flanders. Mike Leigh introduces us though a long take of a couple of Dutch maids, one shouldering the tressle carrying the milking buckets as they happily talk as they walk the pathway alongside a canal. In the distance is the focal point of a still windmill. The soft landscape is swept through in a continuum. The rough grass with the hidden pathway. High in silhouette on the opposite elevated dyke is the portly figure of John William Turner who is enthrall of the Flemish scene.
It is a ponderable start as he would be more likely to be looking and sketching the characters in the ‘plain’ well documented landscape, so ML has taken his first broad sweep beautiful and meditative as it is.
The light is fading and his furrowed brow shows his intimate reading of this large landscape and he fixes this in his sketchbook in rough and carefully placed notational strokes of a broad pencil. This is the notion of TS of the painting, sketching style. TS took some direction trying to capture the hold of brushes, the mixing of pigments and materials and with it he takes plenty of liberties being the dramatic beast that he perceives him to be.
Indeed a hams head appears on a dinner table and perhaps a linear joke – one is heard – ‘do you want some more cheek!’ Well to make a film you have to have certain arrogance otherwise the character is empty played truly or not.
19th Century London
Enter London and the iron oxide red brick blend; posher streets have more red content, are with the bricked up windows recalling the window taxes and the blocking off of the carefully designed Georgian rooms.
The symmetry, human scale of the well ordered streets and the ornamented doorways and railings place this film in the midst of many well conceived period depictions of London. You expect a horse drawn carriage has been parked to hide some 21st c. piece of corporate intrusion! Well with my architectural eye, I deploy the aghast interventions present, here concealed.
The temerity of the streets appearance is contrasted with the JMWT swagger as it shows his choice of living quarters. It immediately settles the eye into a sumptuous panoply of familiar beautifully decorated and furnitured houses.
Interior Incarnate
Up the steps to his own door in Chelsea he fumbles with his keys and into the subtlety lit fern green hallway. The architraves skirtings and wall dado are all of a similar hue. It is like a temperate greenwood forest and intimates, hints at the oddments of character infused with every part of this master painters life.

If you think I have been too descriptive, maybe, but it is compelling and only the beginning of a compelling and wonder filled story.

Domestic Liberties
Hannah, (Dorothy Atkinson) his housemaid, the adoring, middle aged woman he capriciously and routinely uses to expunge his sexual urges which she openly accepts as affection even under abuse and has his domestic routine recorded delivering drinks, paint, frames, to his hand a second before asked.
She has a kitten like coquettish but pragmatic coyness which is deployed to take us closer to knowing how this reading of his character is to unfold.
The housemaid is an invention in the biographical sense but Hannah is a foil for which much of the unsavory and challenged humanity of JMWT is vexed.
Also at the house is his father William, a retired Gentlemans Barber of good fortune, played with honorable whimsy by Paul Jesson who is devoted to the exploits of his son.
It is he who attends to frames and paints and probably the books.
Familial Eschewal
When the door knocks a further part of his family enters. His irascible wife who is not with fortune and his two daughters. One holding his grandchild.
They are in need of help and he immediately addresses them abruptly as an estranged husband he keeps them at a distance and sends them to a drawing room to await him. This completes his family for its complexion it is another directorial indulgence to drive this ferocious wedge between the husband and wife though their separation and his neglect are most probably true by the accounts.

It is the lot of JMWT that he must move with the wind and respond to his patrons and his painterly invention is noted by such as Lord Egremont whose estate contains many couriers and the withdrawing rooms are full of portraits and fine works of art carefully chosen. A white stockinged leg is visible in one scene of a man standing wide astride much as Henry VIII would be seen so maybe a hint of royalty acceded to.
The house he goes to meet the Lord at is Petworth in East Sussex and its stately interior is beyond grand and is opulent and possibly egregious and flagrancy of the kind only the slave trade could have brought such fortune to it. These are not gimcrackeries or baubles of an aristocrat but the finest decorations and exuberant manifestation of taste as can befit his station.
The slave painting Detail.
This is the environment of the most disturbing fallacy of understanding the human and the art of JMWT cannot and dare not utter anything of the depravity which is his master and patron.
There are some extrordinarily well conceived scenes. One where the song of Henry Purcell is given a heart felt rendering by JMWT in a connection he makes through simple conversation. Another later in another place where his only politically charged painting is carried off with the willingness of JWT by the buffoonish John Ruskin Junior. There is a cadence and momentum to the story which is so difficult to convey being of a very widely known artist and it is of very great credit that pace and attention to only the most edifying of encounters are given a degree of prominence.

The way of films of this kind, the soporific, cloistered, confined, ordered, worthy, glorification of a true genius with whom temerity requires a delicate hand, it is the actors license to go beyond that heft and become garrulous, effusive and obsequious.
Broadbrush School of Painting
JMWT spends a lot of the time unsurprisingly at his large canvases. Again ML and TS have fell into the snare of over exaggeration. Both in the way Timothy Spall uses his brush like a dauber and dilettante with added spit and egg. ML has for the most part framed a dialogue but he allows actors to improvise in a not very convincing happy chappy way at times.
There is a battlefield in which quite a lot of the film is played out and with an illustrious roll call the steps of the Royal Academy are taken and the reputations are cross haired and slipped upon. I get refereeing some of these are without lines and improv. Queen Victoria pays a visit and her reaction to JMWTs work states its difference and raises its value.
That has been the way through many films Mike Leigh has achieved a British noir for the portraiture of English moderated eccentricity, be it working class, period based or location driven.
The fact is the reality unseen is far more colourful, has greater depth and unhinged, happenstance story and personality that any film can only, autobiographically pick a pot of paint and splash the canvas before it and the actors dry up for lack of knowledge of the inner thoughts; who on earth could imagine, of the extremis obitum.
Eminent Women
The women in his life we are shown as helpful obstructions. That is until he encounters under his other name a lady who has outlived two husbands and is a warm hearted and nature loving woman. She lives in a place which is known as the last place in England the sunsets. It gives up much of the beauty this film mines and it is to MLs credit he depicts England of the South and East coast in such vivid gorgeous variety. As such it could well have the tableau Tracey Emin knew alongside its municipal subsequent vandalism.
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament
With the direction requiring the application of paint in sessions, distractions turn up to colour the intensity absent but present in the geniuses head.
Torment and rage. Invention and rejection. Ingenuity and extraction.
The energy of paint is nuclear in his hands. This is the equivalent of E=Mc2.
When the speed of two protons is so fast they cannot repel they combine each giving up that energy. It is the substance presently we cannot capture ( scientists currently have combinations that have 3% payback – they expend too much to achieve that!) that is infinitesimally mercurially out of our reach but within a hair on a brush applied by the real John Turner.

No such animadversion is intended to anyone surrounding this film with the accepted outlet of no one having an overriding fulcrum of the obit.
It is instead a visually splendid sacrament illuminated through a lens of prismatic content of JMWTs anointment with oil, the pigment not his own and the recital of prayer ghostly hung in staves of exhubrance played out by clinging to the mast of a fixed ship to be washed of sin and given Gods wisdom. No one disbelieves the degrees and hardships JMWT went through to achieve his goal and the reward was not only for it to be acclaimed but the thought to him he had discovered new ways with paint that would survive and outlive him.
Turner and Seven Hills
The question is does it shed any light of the character of JMWT?
As some films explore even more well documented painters such as Picasso, the Bloomsbury set or authors such as Virginia Wolff with very specific paradigms it is apparent no such insight is available here.
We do not learn what Roman painters, Italian and Dutch painters influenced him.
This is again the nature of Mike Leigh films.. They interest as the heft of the actors and a story which has a beginning middle and an end with little exploratory or problematic themes to last and continue way beyond the films delivery.

Conclusion. ####4
This is one of the best British films made as a period piece as well as biographic cinematic examination. it probably marks the highest point of Timothy Spalls acting with a superb but inaccurate portrayal of one of the worlds best painters. He is splendidly cast and brings an energy which few others could have portrayed this driven working class painter rising up through the ranks to become highly regarded by his contemporaries except for a few who knew little other than replication. The performances alongside are very convincing across the whole range. From the abused and put upon Dorothy Atkinson to the army of artists and RA fixtures and the direction is exquisitely accurate and cinematically it is in keeping with its subject. It is not as morally or emotionally intense as MLs Secret and Lies but it has confirmed the breadth of the conviction to Cinema as a victorious means of supplying us with a large compass of the thought provoking exterior we encounter across our common existence.
Well worth the effort of seeing and it is another film showing how the BFI and the British film community ( NI has a TV community!?) knows its country so very well and indeed knows the people who modeled it.

John Graham

31 October 2014


On at QFT Belfast From 31st October through to Thursday 13th November

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The Margate House