‘Mr Turner’ © Thin Man Films Ltd
This film is a must see – a movie by a very good director (Mike Leigh) about a brilliant British artist (JMW Turner) – the working-class genius with the complicated personal life. It has garnered a win at Cannes for Timothy Spall, as well as rave reviews and talk of Oscar nominations. And also because it is most complained-about film of 2014 due to shots of his nude buttocks, according to the British Board of Film Classification. It’s obviously a notable achievement as a work of art itself, though I found this article by a Turner expert called Andrew Wilton who was consulted by the filmmakers rather interesting for his views on to what extent the film managed to capture the real man. In ‘A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right?’ Wilton who was consulted personally by the director Mike Leigh praises the film as both moving and beautiful but finds a Turner portrayed by Timothy Spall that he didn’t quite recognize – one which misses the delicacy, complexity and intricacy of Turner’s touch:
“Spall went to great lengths to get his drawing and painting right, and sort of succeeds. He misses the crucial point, though: that Turner was a miniaturist by temperament. He made innumerable watercolours on a tiny scale, compressing astonishing amounts of topographical and atmospheric detail into them, and the sketchbooks he took with him on tours usually function in the same way. If you look closely at his oil paintings, you find them equally detailed……..Spall is decidedly of the soapsuds-and-whitewash school of painting. He smears and spits and swipes at the canvas, enacting what the contemporary public choose to believe about Turner, and what modernism has asked us to believe, too”
In Wilton’s opinion therefore the film fails to portray Turner’s careful delicacy, subtlety and precision, showing him instead making broad, passionate, Jackson Pollock like painting gestures – almost, as Wilton suggests, like an early abstractionist. I wonder if there isn’t rather a class prejudice in there too, as Turner famous came from humble and ‘unrefined’ origins.
I’m sure Wilton is probably quite right, though I suppose a film about an artist painting away delicately, rapt with concentration not only doesn’t fit the popular stereotype of a passionate artist but probably also doesn’t make for great cinema, however interesting a character Turner was in terms of his social life and his simultaneously uncouth yet expressive personality, as reported by historical sources. There was enough research done by director, actor and art department to make it a film worth seeing.
‘Mr Turner’ © Thin Man Films Ltd
You certainly can’t doubt Timothy Spall’s commitment to the role – the actor learned how to paint for the role, taking private lessons for two years from the portrait artist Tim Wright. That really is really a commitment to his art worthy of Daniel Day-Lewis. Wright evidently concocted a sort of personal ‘foundation course’ for Spall, learning speed drawing and charcoals, followed by watercolour, acrylics, and finally oil paint. They began with still life painting, moved on to painting from the live figure, and finally moved outside to paint. In all Spall completed around 400 artworks including 10-15 full size paintings, culminating in a full size painting of one of Turner’s great works.
The film also explores Turner’s mysterious and unconventional personal life – the artist set up house with his landlady in Margate as well as having relationships with both a woman called Hannah Danby and also her aunt Sarah Danby who bore him two secret daughters. Turner produced a large number of erotic sketches, many of which may have been burned by his great supporter the art critic John Ruskin after his death. The prudish Ruskin is evidently rather caricatured in this film where he is played by Joshua Maguire, more so than his recent portrayal by Greg Wise in Effie Grey in which Ruskin appears at least half sympathetic. It would be interesting to see a fully-rounded exploration of Ruskin one day in a film.