Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mr. Turner: Impressions of the Artist

The film Mr. Turner gives us the crabby little rotund man behind those expansive luminous seascapes of early Victorian England.  Embodied by actor Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner is a bull in the Victorian china shop, grunting and waddling through drawing rooms, sullen or abrasive in conversation.  Yet his eyes well with tears at amateur performances of music, and we see him animated with affection for his father and with passion for art.

Director/writer Mike Leigh skirts the well-worn arc of biopics -- from obscurity to fame -- by starting mid-life, when the artist and his eccentricities are already well-known.  It would seem that the only way to go is down through diminished reputation and declining health.  We do see Turner mocked in a music hall sketch, his work displaced in the gallery by Pre-Raphaelite kitsch; we visit the studio of a photographer whose technology both threatens Turner and fascinates him; we see the stiffening of the proud man's gait, hear the racking cough.

But Leigh leavens the story of decline, told in short episodes, with scenes that show other themes in the artist's life.    

Of course, art itself is a major motif in the movie.  Turner will travel to Holland or to a Scottish sea port, strap himself to a ship's mast during a storm, pay a prostitute to pose, or consult a scientist about magnetic qualities of the spectrum, all to capture the images he wants. He maintains fierce independence among other artists at the gallery, and defends a past master from the snide attacks of a callow John Ruskin: "That man," he says, "was a genius, an artist of his time."  When Turner's own time seems to have passed, his neglected works crammed in his shabby gallery, a discerning American offers a fortune for the lot, and we know that his reputation will outlast the fashions of his day.

Another sequence of episodes trace Turner's gradual discovery of love late in his life, set in counterpoint to scenes that show his callousness.

For callousness, Leigh shows Turner resist calls from a former mistress to support their desperate family. Turner loans fifty pounds to an impecunious artist who stubbornly antagonizes all who would help him, just to be rid of the man. Learning that the man's children have starved to death while their father indulged his pride, Turner's sympathy is aroused, extending so far as to forgive the debt and to denounce the man.  The longest single thread in the story, and a painful one to watch, is how Turner takes advantage of a housemaid, never acknowledging her devotion to him, not even noticing her dire physical decline.

But when he takes a room at the seaside home of a former slave ship's captain, Turner and the captain's cheerful wife begin a polite friendship that, in her widowhood, develops into a mutually nurturing relationship.

I wonder if Leigh intends for the movie to imitate Turner's own approach to art?  He does fill the screen with Turneresque skies that reflect on water.  Yet it's not the delicate colors that he emphasizes when he shows us Turner at work, but sudden jabs with the brush, impatient smearing with his fingers, even spitting at the canvas.  The film's spare musical score by Gary Yershon, played all by strings, seems an analog to Turner's work, sounding to me (on first hearing) like a wash of harmonic colors punctuated by sudden jabs with the bows.  The movie likewise is a portrait told in daubs that resolve into a design only as we get some distance.   

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