If you have two and a half hours to immerse yourself in the last two decades of an eighteenth -century, renowned, seaside painter see “Mr.Turner”. Dick Pope’s cinematography is worth the time spent,especially the pictorial splendor of the artist fishing creekside in a wooden skiff. This frame is accompanied by “Jesus rays” and green, primordial lushness. Other landscapes evoke golden windmills and water/sky vastness, but this quiet meditative frame is my favorite. Nature is where the curmudgeon J.M.W.T. could find escape from the vicissitudes of artist politics and hanger-ons’ demands. This frame and the smokey mirage-like composition used with the initial credits do homage to Turner’s ephemeral use of light.
This film is a period drama as well as a bi-op. The stoke hats, the horse and carriages, the lice and scrofula, the candlelight and the sherry, the incessant cleaning of windows and the batting of rugs -all bring the era before us. The costumes and both the inner domestic and the outer street scenes are mesmerizing. Light and shadow bring Margate,London and Chelsea settings in mid- eighteen- century to the fore.
This may be director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. It combines the subjects of a tender yet merciless genius with art and its place in our lives. One flirtatious interlude has a character say,”The universe is chaotic, and you,Mr.Turner,make us see it.”
As for Mr.Turner,his complex and rather dislikeable character is played by a gravelly voiced Timothy Spall. Spall plays against the scenery of loch,light and lasciviousness. There are three “Mrs.Turners”. His ex-mistress (Ruth Sheen) is the mother of two of his daughters. She is a shrieker who berates him for neglecting them. He had not troubled to acknowledge his first grand-daughter. “Billy Turner, you insult me. You have always insulted me.” seems to speak to his modus operandi. He regularly gropes Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson),his simple and devoted housekeeper. In one scene, he indecorously throws her against a bookcase while rhymatically breathing and thrusting.When she asks if he will be returning to the house later that night,he barks ” no”. Hannah responds with “I might as well stop changing the bed sheets in here”. Later, when she finds an address in his jacket, Hannah journeys with whom we presume to be their sickly daughter to elicit aid. The girl dies in the street outside his new residence,and Hannah returns alone. Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey) is his final match. Their relationship is warm and caring,though he never tells her that he is the renowned painter,Mr.Turner. She learns this truth from the doctor she enlists to treat his bronchitis. The doctor prescribes bed,broth and balsam and the continual good care of Mrs.Booth. She is at his bedside when he says his final words: “The sun is God.”
Spall is a masterful character actor. His wide-leg umbrella supported gait,his grunting and harrumphing will be remembered. Where there is anger,there is pain. He spits on canvases,throws stools,groans like Grendel, yet is able to brook his ire and sing arias of lost love and see a fallen angel in a section of tree bark. His drollness is a thing of legend. He remarks that he resembles a gargoyle and that loneliness,drunkeness and solitude will come. Turner’s melancholy is tempered with wit. Spall delivers double entendres to his host like,”Can never be too salty for me,Madame” with aplomb. He sobs as he arranges and sketches a young prostitute his daughter’s age when she tells him that she does extras. One daughter has died while he “was painting his ridiculous ship wrecks.” He asks that his own physician to ” go down and have a sherry and reassess your opinion” when he is told of his heart condition. It is well to remember that Spall garnered the Best Actor Prize at Cannes.
There is so much detail in this film that I am surprised at its mere two and a half hour length. The infamous slave ship the “Zong” is mentioned as the first Mr. Booth recounts his naval experience in the 1780’s. He confesses that the conditions for the slaves were so bad that ” it sent me back to church”. The workings of the Royal Academy and its members Corot ,Constable etc.. are introduced. John Ruskin’s criticism and salon swagger are shown ;and critics,like Queen Victoria herself, are given play. Her highness thought Turner’s smearing of chrome pigment “a dirty yellow mess”. Steam engines,the camera,the use of prism optics all enter into Turner’s oeuvre and outlook. The camera’s easy realism and his first photo shot had him opine: “I fear I ,too, am finished”.
The score of “Mr. Turner” is Gary Yershon’s ,and it leads the narrative unfolding from barber/servant father and “lunatic” mother through the bequeathing of his life’s work to the British people. Bird song, fiddle, harpsichord and silence presage salon harangues and frames of ice and fire firmaments. It is an understatement to say that this film hands us plenty to think about besides Mr. Turner. History is truly captured.