13 December 2014

Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’

This post is a bit late in the day for the UK where Mr Turner went on general release on 31 October. However, I believe the limited US release (outside film festivals) will start on 19 December, so some readers there may find it of interest. 

Mr Turner is a biopic of the English painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), famous for his land and seascapes. I’m no expert on Leigh’s work, but I think that his only other film which is historical, and also biographical, was Topsy-Turvy about Gilbert and Sullivan. This film, set earlier in Victoria’s reign, follows the life of Turner (Timothy Spall, erstwhile Mikado) over the period from not long before his father’s death in 1829 to his own death. Much of the cinematography is sympathetic to Turner’s style and subject matter and the film is as good to look at and as well-acted, as the critics say. Many of the cast are long-term associates of Leigh. How well-founded Spall’s grunting interpretation of Turner may be, as opposed to just idiosyncratic, I can’t say, but it worked convincingly in his relationship with Marion Bailey’s Mrs Booth, Turner’s Margate landlady and companion in his later years.

Leigh’s film is essentially a sequence of vignettes, undated and unlocated, which also offer few clues about some of the characters. Not everyone may know that Turner’s first mistress and the mother of his two unacknowledged daughters was Sarah Danby, a woman 15 years older than himself. Or that his housekeeper was her niece, Hannah Danby, a psoriasis sufferer. Or that his great patron was Lord Egremont of Petworth House in Sussex where Turner, when not abroad, spent most of the 1830s. And there may be other things, for example about John Ruskin, or John Constable and the other eminent painters of Turner’s day or the Pre-Raphaelites who came after them, which it might be helpful to know about before seeing the film, rather than discover them afterwards from Wikipedia or from some of the knowledgeable commentary, not all of it uncritical, which the film has generated. Otherwise the 150 minutes (surely one death bed scene too many) might drag a little. Some background pieces which I liked:

A brush with Mr Turner, in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, chairman of the Turner Society.

John Ruskin: Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson have got him all wrong, also in the Guardian, by cultural historian and defender of Ruskin, Philip Hoare.

Mr Turner: Recreating the Royal Academy Show of 1832, Amy Raphael’s interview For Christieswith the film’s production designer Suzie Davies. (below)

Impressions of Mr Turner, again in the Guardian, by the film’s researcher, Jacqueline Riding.

I found the portrayal of Turner’s father by Paul Jesson unconvincing, his being only 10 years older than Spall, who looks all of his 57 years, probably didn’t help, and Jesson's Mummersetshire accent might have been more appropriate for Constable’s East Anglian father than Turner’s Devonian one. On a West Country note, anyone searching for the location of Mrs Booth’s house in Ramsgate should instead try the most south easterly part of Cornwall with its views east across Plymouth Sound, not the Channel!

More filmic licence applies in the scene when a clunking link is made between two of Turner’s most famous paintings: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, (1838 below top) and Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844 or earlier, below lower).

But then Turner never witnessed Temeraire under tow to the breaker’s yard. Pre-release, there was a lot of publicity about the effort Spall made in learning to paint, eg How I became Mr Turner (BBC) and Timothy Spall spent two YEARS learning to paint like Turner in order to play him, (Daily Mail). I don’t recall seeing that much paint being applied, nor am I any judge of the effect all this effort achieved, but Grayson Perry (@Alan_Measles on Twitter on 8 November) certainly is:
Just seen Mr Turner. Very good, but he holds his brush like a shovel and his pencil like a spoon, which disturbed me.

Spall won Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In France Turner is an exception in being a British painter who is fairly well-known - how much the debt which Monet and the other Impressionists owe to Turner, Constable and Whistler is appreciated is another matter. It will be interesting to see how Mr Turner gets on in the 2015 Oscars.


Mr Turner received four Oscar nominations:

Cinematography - Dick Pope
Production Design - Suzie Davies & Charlotte Watts
Costume Design - Jacqueline Durran
Original Score - Gary Yershon

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