Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 30 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
But blessed are your eyes, for they see…
Jesus’ words, of course addressed to his disciples, were about spiritual seeing, but they might also apply in both a spiritual and a physical way to Joseph Mallord William Turner, the subject of Mike Leigh’s newest film–and also to those privileged to have seen up close any of his grand paintings. Regarded by many as the greatest landscape painter of the 19th century and an explorer of the properties and effects of light, his soft focus way of painting land and seascapes brought the wonder and beauty of nature alive far better than the more realistic works of 18th century artists. His career was the opposite of Van Gogh’s, The Brit selling so many paintings that his wealth gained him the admiration of and access to the high and mighty, including Prince Albert and the Queen. And yet later in his career he too would be relegated toward the periphery of the art world as fashion and public taste moved on to embrace other artists—though by then he need not worry about debtor’s prison.
The film, covering the last thirty plus years of the artist’s life (he was born in 1775 and died in 1851), begins in the early1820s with Turner (Timothy Spall) coming home from a painting trip in Belgium. His affable father William (Paul Jesson), still clinging to the knee breeches of the previous century, serves as his manservant, tending not only to his physical needs and running errands, but mixing his paints as well. The son is a bachelor whose sexual outlets consist of a girl at the local brothel and his submissive housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). We soon learn he has sired two daughters, but is so self-absorbed that he has taken almost no interest in them. Their mother visits him numerous times with the now grown girls in tow, calling him a monster and begging money for their needs, but he scarcely pays any attention to them. A famous member of the Royal Academy of Arts and well off financially, Turner is also approached by fellow artist Benjamin Robert Haydon for loans. We see just how tactless this talented painter is in these encounters—he varies between demanding and pleading that Turner lend him large amounts of money. (Haydon, whose large scale paintings of historic episodes were a hard sell, was in debtors’ prison several times and took his own life a few years before Turner died.)
At a seaside village Turner rents a room because of its large windows affording a view of the harbor. Over the next few years he becomes very attached to the landlady, the widowed (twice) Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey). Eventually he takes up residence with her, though still keeping his London home and studio. When first renting the place he gives her one of his middle names, Mallord, so she does not know that he is the famous artist. It is the doctor, while treating the artist for heart trouble, who recognizes him and reveals his identity, though he assures the distraught man that he will tell no one else. A most touching moment is, deep into their quiet relationship Turner tells his plain-looking companion, “You are a woman of profound beauty.” By now we can also see her inner beauty as well.
One of the saddest episodes in the film concerns Hannah, who has served him so faithfully but is not aware of Mrs. Booth–not until she finds in one of Turner’s coats a letter with the address of the seaside abode. By now her face and skin are marred by some form of skin disease, so when she decides to go and find her absent employer, she partially covers her face. Enquiring of two ladies about the whereabouts of the house, she is informed that it is occupied by an old gentleman and his companion. Shocked by this revelation, Hannah turns away, deciding to return home without knocking on the door.
There are lots of other fascinating scenes, such as Turner’s visits to the Royal Academy where he encounters other such notables as the painter Constable and Prince Albert; his visit to the solon of the pompous art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) and his father; a sitting at the studio of a photographer who explains to him the new device called a camera; a brief scene in which he has himself tied high up on a mast so that he can experience a snow storm at sea; and his riding in a small boat with friends to witness a venerable Trafalgar gunship The Fighting Temeraire being towed up the Thames by one of the new steam powered tugs to the scrap yard. (He will turn the scene into one of his “marine pieces.”) Perhaps one of the most revealing, as to his values, takes place in the room of his London house where many of his unsold paintings are more or less on display. An American steel magnate who thinks that everything can be bought tells Turner that he likes his paintings so much that he is willing to pay a hundred thousand pounds for all of them. This is such a huge amount for those times that the deal would have made the headlines. The artist turns him down, explaining that these are the pictures he plans on bequeathing to the British people. The man tries to enlighten him with what a large, generous offer this is, but Turner says that he wants all of the people to be able to see the works.
Mike Leigh as scriptwriter thus shows us a man of great contradictions—actor Timothy Spall incredibly conveys an almost brutish trait in the artist’s neglect of his daughters and his sexploitation of his housekeeper, and a yet tender relationship with Mrs. Booth; his ability to move among the greats of society, yet seldom speaking more than two sentences, often preferring to grunt his responses; his total dedication to his art and lack of concern for those who did not understand it (he comments that Thackery has taken a disliking to one of is works). The film is as much a visual tract of its times as it is of his less than eventful life (compared to Van Gogh’s or Gauguin’s). The film is one of the most beautiful films now showing, the period detail minutely recreated by production designer Suzie Davies and carefully photographed by Dick Pope, both nominated but failing to win an Oscar. Although the film will draw mainly art lovers interested in the great precursor of Impressionism, the “warts and all” tale should appeal to all who are willing to sit back and let a languid tale carry them along.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables