Mr. Turner, biography, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles
If Joseph Mallord William Turner had lived and painted in Elizabethan England, we would very likely today be embroiled in controversy over whether his canvases were executed by the Earl of Oxford, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Mary, Queen of Scots. Like England’s greatest playwright, its greatest painter was a commoner, and if there are people who have trouble with Hamlet issuing from the quill of a glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, think how they’d have choked on Mr. Turner. He was a child of the streets, the cockney son of a London barber, raised in the gutters and licentious sprawl of Covent Garden, which in his day had the cultural and moral standing of Times Square in the 1960s.
Happily, by Turner’s time, which dawned in the last quarter of the 18th century and extended to the midpoint of the 19th, records were somewhat better kept. His career was a long, distinguished, and productive one, and there’s no gainsaying the identity of the man who painted The Fighting Temeraire.
Mike Leigh may not have the stature of Shakespeare or Turner, but he is certainly one of England’s greatest filmmakers, whether the establishment likes it or not. And apparently it doesn’t. Mr. Turner was snubbed at the BAFTA nominations this year and at the Oscars as well, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.
The most difficult snub to digest is the exclusion of Timothy Spall’s performance from both of those awards lists. Spall won the Best Actor award at Cannes and has been pocketing critics’ awards all over the map, but he was shut out of these two establishment parties. Spall is a force of nature as Turner. He lurches, he shuffles, he galumphs, he snarls and grunts and growls — he seems at times more bear than man, and then more pig than bear. That comparison is under- lined by Leigh, who juxtaposes scenes of Turner’s barber father, William (Paul Jesson), shaving a pig’s head for the dinner table and then giving his son a shave with the same razor.
The movie spans the last quarter century of Turner’s life, when he was already well established at the top of the artistic heap. The movie opens with a luminous shot of the Dutch countryside, a nod to the Netherlands’ artistic legacy. The shot follows a couple of gossiping peasant women until it discovers a squat, top-hatted figure standing on a hill in a field, furiously sketching a windmill as a setting sun bathes the landscape in a warm yellow glow. It’s our introduction to Turner and to the glorious, Turneresque wonder of Dick Pope’s cinematography, which does honor to the subject and his vision of light.
Leigh constructs his movies in his own idiosyncratic way, putting his casts through lengthy improvisations and independent study before beginning to arrive at a script. Spall spent a couple of years immersing himself in Turner’s work and learning to paint and draw. Then there were months of rehearsals as well as extensive period research, involving everyone from the director and his research team to the actors and probably the best boy. As a result, the movie feels impeccable in its details of time and place.
There’s not a great deal of story. Scenes are splashed on the screen the way Turner late in his career spit paint at the canvas, capturing light and impressions of sky and land and sea. The young Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), touring the Royal Academy, pauses in front of a Turner and pronounces it “a vile yellow mess.”
She didn’t even get to see the erotica. Nor do we. Turner’s great champion, the seminal art critic John Ruskin (played amusingly here by Joshua McGuire), was scandalized when after Turner’s death he discovered a vast trove of sketches and watercolors of pudenda and other racy tidbits. Ruskin claimed to have burned them to preserve the artist’s reputation, although the number that have since surfaced suggest that he did not. The movie Turner is seen sketching in a whorehouse, but the scene is relatively chaste. It is followed, however, by one in which he shoves his compliant housemaid Hannah (a terrific Dorothy Atkinson) up against a cupboard, hoists her skirts, and ruts like a wart hog. Then, as she turns to him with hangdog adoration, he lumbers off, grunting.
Not, perhaps, the nicest of men. He is coldly dismissive of a former mistress (Ruth Sheen) and his daughters by her. But he shows a sensitive and compassionate side as well, forgiving a loan to an impoverished colleague, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), and raising a tune-challenged voice at the piano as the daughter of a patron plays a Purcell air.
And late in life he develops a warm, loving relationship with his last mistress, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a plump, comfortable widow in whose Margate house he lets a room on his painting trips there. “You are a woman of profound beauty,” he tells her, and there is a profound beauty in the way their relationship unfolds on screen. He leads a kind of double life with her, separate from his London existence, under an alias. She knows little of painting and for a while has no idea who this “Mr. Mallord” is.
When they first meet, she welcomes him to Margate: “The first place in England the sun do reach in the morning,” she says. On his deathbed, Turner’s final words were “The sun is God.”
Drawing-room exhibition: Timothy Spall