Mr Leigh: thanks for putting me off my favourite artist

A review of “Mr Turner” released last night

Salma Hayek’s drive to bring her fellow Mexican Frida Kahlo to the screen encouraged me to discover the highly original and sometimes surreal portrait artist and her world. Nightwatching gave an appreciation of Peter Greenaway’s work and his deep understanding behind what he calls “Rembrandt’s J’Acccuse”, a painting I’d have otherwise dismissed as a too dark old Master. Watching The Bridge made me go to Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion to see Phillip Wilson Steer’s work and seek him out in the library. I saw all of these films more than once, two being important a decade or more later.

With Mr Turner, I was already familiar with the artist and consider him probably my favourite. Yet this film had the reverse affect, for it made me tempted to go off Mr T.

Since I sat in kicking distance of arrogant Mike Leigh at a so called masterclass, and found his next two films no less obnoxious, I vowed I would view no more. But I made an exception because of the subject matter.

It was, as I feared, a Mike Leigh view of JMW “Billy” Turner. The costumes and period setting disguised the work of Leigh only momentarily: the usual unscripted scenes that feel aimless and often extraneous were soon apparent. Leigh’s style to me is lack of craft, not originality. Does Leigh flatter himself that like his characters say of Turner, he has also taken leave of form? If so, he is unsuccessful. Leigh’s opus is rambling, long but many scenes are unneeded – where did two singing scenes in the country house go in terms of narrative or showing us anything about Turner? Or the one asking his landlady to knock flies from his gallery ceiling in front of his guests?

As played by Timothy Spall, Turner has the manner of a boar or worse (like the sofa bear advert that came on before). He is utterly rude to his housekeeper, often growling instructions but never thanking and often ignoring her questions. He twice sexually abuses her, and even the kiss with his long term mistress is rough wooing – a selfish, greedy, indexterous grope that asks no permission and makes no statements of affection. Despite what others have written, Spall as Turner is not compelling.

Was this really anything like the artist I admire?

The film is crowded like the walls of the oft viewed Victorian gallery, not just with scenes and bits of biography, but with familiar actors underused – eg the excellent Ruby (Minnie from Larkrise) Bendall who barely speaks. Lesley Manville was the film’s most magnetic actor in a short one off role as Mary Somerville, the natural philosopher, come to do experiments with colour. The scene sat alone as a piece from the wrong jigsaw. I kept expecting Mary to reappear, for her colour experiments to be linked to Turner’s world – for instance in my favourite painting that explicitly references Goethe’s theory of colour in its long title (the one about Moses, Genesis and the Deluge). But this film gives unequal weight to Turner’s seascape, only once showing a piece with social or political meaning (that of the slave ships). A glance though any Turner book reveals he spent much time on the land, with prominent castles and cathedrals, and that he went abroad – not just to Holland at the start of the film – and that he roved his own country widely – not just London and Margate. His works also focussed on classical and mystical themes, which is largely missed out of this biopic.

I wondered how the act of artistic creation would be depicted. Not very satisfyingly or originally. Nightwatching and The Bridge tell the story behind a specific painting, with matching cinematoghraphy – as this tried to do, but it didn’t go far enough; Turner’s later work is about brush strokes rendering indistinct and magical, sometimes with great movement, not just hazy fog over an off centre strong light. Frida lets us see the images, the events and emotions behind several of her works, fusing live action with the paintings. There’s shots of Turneresque views, but the Fighting Temeraire was really obviously spelt out as a potential subject in naff dialogue. And we rarely get Turner’s views on what he’s doing, though we do have the words of critics, and most analysis comes from the Ruskin family’s speils. There’s a lot of Turner pottering with a brush and sometimes spitting on works we’re likely to recognise, and some of his dad procuring and preparing the paints, but we don’t see what’s underneath Turner, man nor canvas.

And it ends with his death – not like Frida who utilises a painting to make it a moving joyful exit in her spirit – but just his physical passing game over; and then the despair of the abused housekeeper but no hint of his St Paul’s cathedral funeral (recalling a Mrs T I’m still sore over).

This is unfocussed, loose as Spall’s jowls [forgive me Tim] and missing the opportunity to paint with light on two levels.

But at least it got my own paint box out.

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