The opening shot of Mr. Turner is a stunning vision; a stream runs past a windmill which stands alone in a wide expanse of Dutch countryside. Two milkmaids jovially converse as they amble towards the foreground shortly after daybreak. The warm colours of a hazy sunrise light up the sky and the screen.
This striking panorama sets the tone visually for the entirety of Mike Leigh’s period biopic, which charts the last quarter century of the tempestuous life of English painter J. M. W. Turner, who died in 1851. Thanks to cinematographer Dick Pope the film is a feast for the eyes from first to last. It is easy to appreciate how such vistas inspired the creation of works of art and as the camera pans through ninety degrees we see the portly silhouette of the great painter who admires and records this view with paper and pencil.
Leigh’s depiction of Turner, however, does not paint the artist in a particularly favourable light. Both his physical appearance and personal proclivities are laid bare in unbiased fashion, and while he does have some redeeming features, his character certainly has not been viewed with rose-tinted glasses by the veteran British filmmaker who both wrote and directed the production.
I have long admired Timothy Spall and his performance as Turner is surely his greatest achievement to date. His facial features alone are something to behold – a protruding bottom lip combines with a frequent snarl of the upper, generous mutton chops, an almost permanent scowl and furrowed brow turn his ruddied boat race into a gurning grimace which is the polar opposite of the beauty of his life’s work. No offense, Tim. Accompaniments include guttural grunts in place of worded communication, contrasted with frequently eloquent references to the Classics by a man who is at one and the same time a boorish warthog, a gentlemanly scholar and a Jack the Lad from the environs of Covent Garden.
After Topsy-Turvy (1999), Mr. Turner is only the second period piece undertaken by Leigh and is a significant departure from the housing estates and suburbia of prior films in terms of time and place. While there has to be a certain grandeur to telling the story of such a well-known figure, Leigh’s keen eye for the day-to-day lives of ordinary people remains undiminished here. Family dynamics, often dysfunctional, are again centre stage and Leigh shows that Turner did not conform in any way to nineteenth century conservatism or morality.
The strongest bond in the film is perhaps between father and son, William and Billy Turner respectively, whose affection for one another is paramount. Turner Sr., played with devotion and slight embarrassment by a superb Paul Jesson, takes care of ‘young’ Billy’s London residence during his son’s research trip absence along with housekeeper Hannah Danby, a longing and long-suffering Dorothy Atkinson whose doe-eyed looks of devotion are spurned by the blinkered artist who only occasionally acknowledges her by physical acts of lust which are little more than assault. Atkinson’s performance arcs from a genuine optimism and anticipation to the resignation of abandonment. It is a desperate representation of unrequited love, the moments of wry humour shared between master and maid only adding to the pathos.
To further complicate matters, Hannah’s aunt, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) – a whirlwind of resentment and indignation – is the mother of two daughters sired by the promiscuous Billy; offspring whose existence the artist denies to peers and the general public. Little meditation is done on his reasoning for such reprehensible behaviour and even when presented with his first grandchild he shows no paternal instinct whatsoever, sending his unintended family on their way so that he can get back to what is important to him; painting. For all the charm expressed in Leigh’s wonderfully Dickensian script by the roguish Turner, his shunning of familial responsibility and questionable sexual urges cannot help but tarnish our opinion of him. His public and private faces were not the same.
That is not to say that the brute is devoid of all feeling. As “Daddy” lies on his death bed, Billy’s stoicism and emotional apathy melts away as a solitary tear rolls over puffy cheeks. He visits a brothel – we assume for some light relief – but when led into a room with one of the establishment’s young ladies he simply arranges her in order to draw her but, upon learning her tender age, cannot even bring himself to do so. His emotional outburst is exaggerated, unexpected, embarrassing and entirely genuine.
Where Turner finds himself in the 19th century class system is difficult to ascertain. He appears to fit in with all rungs of the social ladder but where we find him most at home is the last portion of the film where he makes regular visits to a boarding house in Margate; he studied here as a younger man and lost two friends – the circumstances of which we do not learn – and looks back to his roots for inspiration and solace in the wake of the death of his father. He finds love again in his autumn years in the form of the widowed Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey – above); a woman of “profound beauty.” He remains devoted to his work, even strapping himself to the very top of a ship’s mast at the height of a snowstorm. You cannot help but admire the madness to his method.
Just as the sprightly fleet of foot that Turner has at the beginning of the film turns to more of a lumbering and uncomfortable waddle as his health declines, the film’s pacing suffers towards the end of its mammoth running time. With the coming of the railways and the invention of the daguerreotype (the first camera), Turner fears that his profession will be left behind as time chugs inexorably on under coal, steam and industry.
At a visit to a stately home early in the film Turner massacres the singing of a version of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ played by a beautiful young pianist who catches his eye. The words that really strike a chord with him are “Remember me, but forget my fate.” Mike Leigh has ensured that J.M.W. Turner will always be remembered, warts and all. His works were bequeathed to the British nation, as he had intended, and I’m sure he would have thought that that was “capital”.