Spit­ting images

Mr. Turner, bi­og­ra­phy, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - — Jonathan Richards

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

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