In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen ‘The Late Turner’ exhibition at Tate Britain and Mike Leigh’s biopic feature film ‘Mr. Turner’. I’m intrigued by my reaction to the relationship between these two experiences. Where to begin? It probably comes down to a few basic questions in respect of the film: do I know more or less about Turner’s work; do I understand more about Turner the man; if I say ‘no’ does that make any difference to my response to Turner’s paintings and drawings when I stand in front of them?
Before getting to this I want to be clear that I enjoyed the film immensely for many reasons: the method Mike Leigh uses to create film, the research, the cinematography, the soundscape, the set and costume design and of course the extraordinary acting, of, for example, Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s devoted housekeeper of forty years – Hannah Danby, but in particular Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Mr. Turner. In the latter case what a difference between this and Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh or Charlton Heston as Michelangelo! I have no problem at all with regarding Mr. Turner as great cinematic art.
As I’ve said elsewhere the more one looks, the more time one takes to encounter Turner’s canvases, watercolours and drawings the more one sees – especially when looking at the late sea and landscapes. Encounter is an interesting word in this context signifying that one is not engaged in passive reflection but embroiled in the ferment of the work. We don’t tend to look at film in the same way – not even when we see the same film a number of times. In this case one moves and one doesn’t; perplexingly the static images move. Looking at still film frames is unedifying. Looking at a drawing is the opposite – perhaps because 24 frames per second, so to speak, have been coalesced into one.
Back to my questions. I’ll take the second first: do I understand more about Turner the man? Certain things I already knew, others suspected and some were new to me. There are some things about the representation and characterisation of ‘artists’, and arguably the greatest of all English painters – Turner, that almost inevitably drift into cliché. The artist is obsessed by the making of art to the exclusion of all else including the ability to put oneself in the place of the other and feel human emotion, or more accurately, express it except through the work. I think the line Turner speaks in the film is something like ‘Madam, don’t allow your own sorrow to be a burden to another’ in other words keep it to yourself no matter how bad that sorrow may be. On the other hand we find a drunken Turner advising Mrs Ruskin that one day there will be love in her marriage – surely a charitable act in the face of such an obvious impossibility. Turner’s culinary put down of the precocious Ruskin is a joy to behold; undoubtedly Leigh’s commentary and judgement of all critics.
Watching Spall as Turner I was reminded of a much used pressure cooker shuddering on a stove, his snarling grunts of disregarding irritation akin to the bursting of steam through the cooker’s safety valve but with the imminent prospect of the cooker exploding such was the boiling concoction of rage it contained. The other was his likeness to his beloved steam trains that thunder on no matter what. But then again he loves Mrs. Booth; he feels, but it must be kept under control lest it gets in the way of Mr. Turner the artist. He is grumpy, funny, demanding, aggressive, insightful and entranced standing against the skyline in silhouette holding a brush for perspective – bit doubtful about that cliché.
First question: do I know more or less about Turner’s work? No, I don’t. One of the problems with biopics is attempting to get inside the mind of the character when all you can do is show behaviour. Another problem is that no one can know what Turner thought, how he would or wouldn’t speak. Leigh suggests that Spall has learnt to paint. I’ve no idea but the act of painting in this case is a series of explosive bashing, spitting and scrubbing canvases in a manic manner i.e. acting painting. But it doesn’t somehow matter because the sensibility and empathy shown is compulsive viewing.
And to the third question: does any of this make any difference to my love of Turner’s work? No. What Leigh’s film achieves is to convey the deep passion and obsession that makes Turner the extraordinary artist that he is. ‘That he is’ says it all. The exhibition is called ‘The Late Turner’, his last works but also possibly implying death. The film depicts with some emotion Turner’s passing. But Turner’s work is alive. So alive that standing still and carefully looking I am alive in the place, the contrived moment caught in time. I can feel the place, see the light, smell the sea, hear it. Joy. Sensual joy. Shout with delight. See the world anew.
Mike Leigh has wanted to make this film for fifteen years (and more) and despite lack of money went for it; I’m so glad he did. There are nits to pick – why when Turner first arrives in Margate do we have an am dram performance as a man meaninglessly sorts fish as if he was shuffling playing cards? The small budget makes not a jot of difference – in fact the ‘enclosure’ of the scenes and locations is a benefit, it intensifies the man and his obsession. There are specific joys: when Turner will not sell his entire work to a millionaire because he will leave it to the nation – I knew this but it gave me a warm glow. A wonderful moment when Constable and Turner acknowledge each other at the Royal Academy by grunting the other’s name – enemies?
To conclude. Turner is unsurpassed. Mr Turner is a great film. Turner and Leigh are both great artists; how good it is that one inspired the other to make this film. Art. Mr Turner is a homage. Thank you Mr Leigh. But most of all thank you Turner.