Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual content)
Running Time: 2:30
Release Date: 12/19/14 (limited); 12/25/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 18, 2014
"Color is contradictory," the painter says after witnessing an impromptu science experiment, in which prolonged exposure to a single color on the spectrum of light through a prism magnetizes a needle. It happens more often with one color, the "natural philosopher" conducting the experiment says, and less often with a couple of other colors. With the rest of the spectrum, it never happens. Through this observation, she offers a counterargument to the painter: "Colors are absolute." The eponymous painter of Mr. Turner amends his original statement for clarification: "Colors are contradictory but harmonious.
We know this to be true in the same way we know that musical notes are contradictory. Individually play a D, then an F, and finally an A on a piano, and it is self-evident that each note is unique. Play them together, though, and suddenly they do not seem incongruous. Move the F up a semitone, and what was melancholy is now joyful.
Of course, the painter does not work in music but in color, but the essence of the idea is essentially unchanged. Here, he has painted a historical scene of a storm on the ocean—a slave ship caught in a tempest that leads to many deaths. In the center of his canvas are subtly but noticeably brighter shades of hue—for consistency's sake, a semitone brighter. It doesn't quite fit the rest of the murky scene, but in that single shaft of artificial light, a potential buyer sees hope in the face of devastation and death.
In a philosophical sense, these are also absolutes in the human experience—contradictory but harmonious, as the painter says. Just like the colors of the spectrum and the notes on a musical scale, they do not exist without each other. A world of monotone contains neither contradiction nor harmony.
Writer/director Mike Leigh's biographical film, which concerns the British artist J.M.W. Turner, makes a similar case for the contradictions in the life of its subject—and, by extension one supposes, any human life. Here is a man who, as played by Timothy Spall (his performance a paradox unto itself: a fully realized caricature), engages in behavior and possesses a manner that are best described as piggish. Down the streets of London, he hobbles with a constant hunch, likely gained from decades of hauling supplies to and from isolated locations where he would find his artistic muse. His vocabulary primarily consists of guttural grunts and nasal snorts—mostly of disapproval but occasionally of reluctant acceptance.
From this man, who appears to be the least cultured individual one could possibly imagine, comes an understanding and execution of his craft that transcends his contemporaries. They are painting scenes and portraits that, while undoubtedly of the Romantic era of which they are a part, are still holding to the literalism of their forebears. Turner, on the other hand, pours his sweat, his tears, and, on more than one occasion, his spit into his work, creating art that delves into Impressionism before that movement even had a name.
The film follows Turner in an accelerated depiction of his final 25 years while still maintaining the rhythm of the artist's day-to-day existence. His father William (Paul Jesson) serves as the assistant in Turner's home studio and the salesman who leads prospective buyers from a darkened room into the house's gallery. The father scolds his son for insulting the mother that abandoned them before immediately insulting her. It seems ambiguity runs in the family. Turner's housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) worries over him and holds out a hope that he his advances will become something more.
There is yet another contradiction to the man in his romantic life. Here is a man who uses his housekeeper as a sexual release. He also keeps Sarah (Ruth Sheen), the mother of his grown children, at an emotional and financial distance, yet his words of affection sound genuine when he woos Sophia (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed proprietor of an inn at a coastal village where he regularly travels for artistic inspiration. He stays with and apparently remains loyal to her until his death, the nearness of which prompts a profound pronouncement followed by a labored chortle. The two never marry, but he takes her married name.
Turner was famous in his time, until he became infamous. The King of England commissioned a painting from him (which His Royal Highness later refused). Members of the aristocracy hang his work in their manors. We see him as an esteemed member at the Royal Academy of Arts, working furiously to complete one painting in the anteroom while seeming to spite another in the main gallery. He adds a streak of red—ruining a masterpiece, his peers say—as a way to insult an artist who cannot stop adding red splotches representing soldiers to his work.
Turner lives long enough to see himself become the punch line at a music hall performance, wherein the actors joke that he uses food in his work (the result of rumors that he has lost either his eyesight or his mind) and that only wealthy fops would buy his messy paintings. No less than Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews) condemns Turner's work. He discovers a newfangled device called a camera and foresees the death of his trade.
As per usual, the method of Leigh's screenplay is relaxed (He is, of course, well known for allowing his actors to improvise scenes around a loose outline), but the aim and details are precise. Mr. Turner is a film of two worlds—an idea complemented by Dick Pope's cinematography, which shifts between the stagnant realism of society and the ethereal, painterly naturalism of the landscapes that spark Turner's creative flame. There's the Turner of low moral character and unrefined behavior, and there's the Turner who creates transcendent art. They exist together in harmony.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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