I was going to wait to review this until a later point, but why wait? I could sum up my thoughts pretty quickly, and given my lukewarm attitude to the film as a whole, I think I’ll just get it out of the way. Honestly, it was the reaction of a friend to the film, more than anything in the film itself, that will stay with me. Read on…
TW: Discussion of triggers and sexual abuse.
The film covers the last 25-30 years in the life of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), the great British painter best known for his seascapes. Turner, as we see here, is an extraordinary painter but a rather awful man: he uses his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), for loveless, exploitive sex, neglects (and even denies his parentage of) his own daughters, and ultimately seduces a widow, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom he spends his final years with.
Initially, Turner is quite a renowned painter, but as time passes, his work becomes more and more experimental, and the artistic community gradually turns against him; Queen Victoria’s (Sinead Matthews) disapproval of his work does not help. Still, he continues to work, even in the face of his worsening health, until his death, before which he proclaims, “The sun is God!”
It is the depiction of women in the film which deeply disturbed my friend; she found watching the film extremely troubling and when I discussed with her afterwards, she found the memory of it triggering and did not wish to discuss it further. I had asked her to contribute her thoughts to this post, but ultimately she declined and so I summarize her thoughts here.
She contends that the women are depicted unsympathetically, that Turner’s abuse of Hannah Danby is treated comically, and that the film as a whole is extremely misogynistic. And, knowing that a film has caused a friend such pain, it is hard to separate from the film from it. I feel that I was able to…but to what avail?
For Mr. Turner is, all things considered, a rather underwhelming film. Yes, Dick Pope’s Oscar-nominated cinematography produces some marvelous images, evoking Turner’s use of landscape and light. An otherwise pointless scene of Turner gone fishing makes gorgeous use of sunbeams filtering through trees and their reflection on the water. The various landscapes he goes to paint are quite strikingly captured. And the production and costume design, both also Oscar-nominated, bring the 19th-century to life. Gary Yershon’s score, which likewise received an unexpected nomination, provides a spare, haunting accompaniment to the images.
But the visual strengths of the film can’t hide the film’s fundamental lack of dramatic strength. The film seems to have been made to appeal mostly to students of 18th-century British art, and while the artistic community of Turner’s time is effectively presented, that alone is not enough to sustain a 150-minute film. For that matter, Turner’s life isn’t either; the exploration of his character notwithstanding, a great deal of the film is simply dead air. There’s a lot of returning from travel, leaving for it, lots of greetings and pleasantries and other bits of mundanity which add up to a lot of wasted time.
Director Mike Leigh isn’t known for his tight plots. His films tend to take their time, tend to focus more on character and millieu rather than narrative progression. I’ve actually only seen one of his other films–his treatment of the creation of The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy. It’s a wonderful film, one which helped fuel my love of Gilbert & Sullivan. Like Mr. Turner, it’s long (longer, even) and deliberate. It takes its time and allows you to luxuriate in its recreation of Victorian England and the days of the Savoy Opera.
But it’s also about something. Yes, it’s narratively diffuse, but there is a narrative! And here, there’s not. Yes, we progress in a linear fashion to Turner’s death, but aside from his rather vaguely defined artistic development (written off by many in the film as the result of mental illness or physical degeneration), there is precious little to drive the film. His relationship with Sophia Booth develops, he paints, he grows old and sick and dies…and so what?
Leigh spoke of wanting to find the “tension” between Turner’s flawed humanity and his brilliant paintings, but he fails to do so. Turner himself says little about his art, and rather than focusing carefully on his process (though we get some idea of it), we alternate between his often-troubling personal life and the fawning admiration (and eventual criticism) of his art, almost as if Leigh hoped that somehow it would come together in the viewing. But it doesn’t.
Spall won Best Actor at Cannes, but since then has met with mixed success; the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics gave him their awards, but the BAFTAs surprisingly overlooked him, as did the Globes and Oscars. And in a way, it’s not hard to see why; the film’s portrait of Turner is a limited one, and although Spall invests himself fully in Turner’s ubiquitous (and increasingly mocked) grunts and sneers, he cannot quite resolve the gap left by the script. He’s quite credible in the painting scenes as well (he apparently trained extensively in preparation), but again, he does not overcome the fundamental disconnect of the script. It’s a superb performance of a faulty conception.
The supporting cast is generally quite good. Dorothy Atkinson makes the oft-silent Hannah a powerfully affecting figure; often, when one character is pompously holding forth on artistic principles, we cut to her, who is clearly not at all impressed by the exaltations. And the portrait of Turner’s abuse of her is quite poignant, as we see that her feelings for Turner are a mixture of fear, devotion, submission, and devastation. At the end, when Turner has essentially left her for good to stay with Booth, she is able to track him down, but rather than confront him, leaves, heartbroken. The final shot, in fact, is her alone in Turner’s dilapidated home, weeping bitterly, contrasted with a scene of Booth cleaning the windows of her home as the sun streams through. This moment, more than any, sums up the contrasts of Turner.
I have forgotten to mention Turner’s father, William, played by Paul Jesson. A doting father, William has encouraged his son’s work for years, and sees to his needs: buying and mixing paint, making brushes, preparing canvases. He takes ill (and the depiction of his final illness is quite piteous) and dies, leaving Turner heartbroken. Jesson is quite convincing.
Marion Bailey does fine as Booth; it’s a warm, quiet performance. Martin Savage is suitably pathetic as Benjamin Haydon, a colleague of Turner’s whose artistic views were out of step with those of the Royal Academy and who was in constant penury, ultimately dying by his own hand. Ruth Sheen, as the mother of Turner’s neglected daughters, makes her anguish and disgust palpable. Joshua McGuire’s take on the foppish young John Ruskin is one of the film’s more memorable facets. (I swear Stephen Fry cameos as an art patron who just happens to resemble Oscar Wilde, but I’ve found no evidence of it.)
I must return one last time to my friend’s reaction to the film. I watched the film with her feelings in mind, and while I do not align with them, I can see how they might be triggering–and I admit that the audience’s frequent chuckles at seemingly serious moments were rather troubling. Personally, I felt that Turner’s abuse of Hannah Danby was treated as a manifestation of the era’s misogyny–the idea that if the gentleman of the house wished to use his maid thus, she would be expected to comply. And Hannah’s nature, her shy silence and cowering physicality, suggested to me a woman who had been emotionally and physically oppressed, and I felt great sympathy for her–which, I believe, was Leigh’s intent.
Likewise, the mother of Turner’s children (coincidentally Hannah’s aunt) is quite justified in her outrage towards Turner, who has treated her and hers with virtual contempt. Turner’s personal grossness is not diluted and is often uncomfortable to watch. But he turns around and creates great art. So there we are.
And there Mr. Turner is, posing this juxtaposition and letting it sit before us for a full two and a half hours (of which at least half an hour could be safely trimmed), without ever quite resolving it, or really even illuminating it. The performances, the visuals, and the recreation of a time and place are all accomplished enough that I must rank it this high. But it doesn’t come together, and so cannot rank higher.