Mr. Turner (2014) is a beautiful film, filled with expansive and stunning landscapes, as is appropriate for a biography of the man Victorian art critic John Ruskin called the “greatest landscape painter who has ever lived.” Timothy Spall’s portrayal of J.M.W. Turner captures the oxymoronic yoking of a rather brutish mumbler, as Turner reportedly was in part due to his thick Cockney accent, with the Romantic sensibilities of a painter who produced some of the most beloved paintings in Britain. (Indeed, The Fighting Temeraire was recently voted Britain’s greatest painting.) And yet, I exited the theatre feeling as though something was missing: the film lacked a strong central plot. Mr. Turner challenges our expectations of a period biopic, opting for brief vignettes that often feel disjointed rather than a cohesive, neatly arranged narrative of a man’s life. Balancing itself between what we might think of as an attempt to unite the viewer’s vision with that of Turner and fleeting moments of Turner’s life rather than a broad narrative, Mr. Turner is a particularly twenty-first century capturing (if pressed, one might even say ‘post-modern’) of the life of this great nineteenth-century painter.
The film opens with a shot of a Dutch windmill and two young women chatting while walking across the countryside at sunset. The camera follows the women, who pass by a stout man, quietly observing and patiently sketching. As in this scene, the landscape always precedes the man. Immediately following, director Mike Leigh brings us abruptly to a bustling London, ca. 1825. This transition, or lack thereof, prepares the audience for a focus on transient moments. It is perhaps appropriate that the young Ruskin, portrayed in the film as rather a simpering fool, commends Turner by explaining that when he “experiences a masterpiece such as yours, I am struck by the clarity with which you have captured the moment.” Leigh, too, is a master at capturing moments, whether it is a steam engine cutting across a lush, green English countryside; Turner’s rough groping of his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), mousy but bright-eyed; or William Turner (Paul Jesson) quietly admiring his son. Mr. Turner introduces us to the intelligentsia of early nineteenth century Britain, with cameos by Mary Somerville, Ruskin, John Constable, and an especially fiery Benjamin Haydon. The film easily transports us in time and space, thanks to the early nineteenth-century interiors and exteriors that have been captured with the utmost care.
The portrayal of the relationship between Turner and his father is both the most heart-warming and strangest element of this film. William is a doting father, fetching dyes for his son’s paints, managing Turner’s angry former lover and illegitimate daughters, and showing his paintings to prospective buyers. After William’s death, a bedside scene in which Turner is for the most part rather subdued, he visits a brothel. Asking the young prostitute to strip, he proceeds to pull out his sketchpad and burst into intense and unabashed weeping. The two scenes are linked only by their adjacency, which raises feelings of shock or surprise as opposed to sympathy.
Leigh plays with the distance between art and reality, as well as the painter and the audience. At times this involves setting up scenes in Turner’s life, such as a viewing of the Temeraire when a companion suggests it would make good material for a painting, before cutting to his studio, where we find Turner painting what will become The Fighting Temeraire (1849). Indeed, despite Leigh’s uncongenial portrayal, the film often feels deeply indebted to Ruskin’s account of Turner, his art, and his method. Consider, for just one example, a scene in which Turner lashes himself to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm to experience it firsthand.
It may be testament to the fixity of our aesthetic expectations that one leaves the theatre feeling perplexed and rather dissatisfied after the tour de force that is Mr. Turner’s stunning series of visuals. It is perhaps a film best suited to repeated viewings of scenes to appreciate the resplendent interiors, the magnificent exteriors, and Turner’s navigation through these spaces. The film sacrifices a strong, central narrative to capture moments, scenes, and moods, and the reaction it evokes seems strangely appropriate for the story of a man whose paintings later in life, as Mr. Turner demonstrates, evoked similar distaste in the audience for their lack of fidelity to nature. (It is this strand of criticism that inspired the tome that is Modern Painters.) And yet, as Ruskin testifies of Turner, those elements of art we at first feel to be most unlike nature turn out to be most like it. Mr. Turner’s fragmented vignettes seem to capture something more real about a man’s life, or the memory of it, than a neat narrative arc ever could.