Mr. Turner (UK-France-Germany 2014)

One of many beautiful landscape shots of Turner looking for ideas.

One of many beautiful shots of Turner at large in the world he painted – here walking as therapy as he grieves for his father.

Mr. Turner is an extraordinary film. Its reception stands as an exemplar of audience and critical responses in 2014. I was surprised when we turned up at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House on a wet December evening to find a queue outside for a film released more than six weeks ago. The large audience was mainly over 50 and they were seemingly absorbed over 150 minutes. By contrast, when I had shown the trailer to an A Level student audience back in October before it opened they didn’t think that the film would be particularly successful. However, despite strong critical responses and the Cannes acting prize for Timothy Spall in May, many of those in attentive older audiences have come out of screenings saying that they didn’t understand/enjoy the film as much as they had hoped. One friend said that it felt long and drawn out – but that actually he’d never been bored. I can certainly understand this: my first reaction was that I’d seen three different essays rather than a coherent film. One is an essay about ‘performance’ constructed around Timothy Spall’s portrayal of J.M.W. Turner, ably supported by turns from various Mike Leigh regulars and some new faces (mostly obscured by whiskers and bonnets). The second is about cinematography, production design, costume design etc. – a visual essay about representations of art and daily life in the first half of the 19th century. Finally there is Mike Leigh’s diligently researched and at times inspired musings on theatre, art and new forms of communication in the same period. All three essays are high quality but they don’t combine to make the conventional film narrative that the popular audience is no doubt expecting.

When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and felt frustrated until I found the Cannes press notes. Alongside the Sight and Sound interview these helped me to make sense of what I’d seen. The long synopsis of the film explains the background to each scene. Even then I needed to find out more about the chronology of events. Leigh does not provide any indication of dates as such so it isn’t clear that the narrative runs from 1828 until Turner’s death at the age of 76 in 1851. At first I struggled to be sure that the narrative was linear. It’s worth at this point acknowledging that the film isn’t a straight biopic and there is no ‘requirement’ to present the events in a documentary fashion. Ironically, those potential spectators who have decided not to watch a ‘costume picture’ – as well as those audiences upset that the narrative doesn’t conform to the conventional mode – do not recognise that Mr. Turner is an art film (as distinct from a film about art). It’s probably wise to state the other things that Mr. Turner ‘isn’t’ as well. It isn’t a straightforward film about Turner’s ‘artistic vision’ as such. Leigh says that he watched many films about painters before writing the script. He also has his own background of an early art education to draw on, but he wants to avoid both the kind of films that make artists into mad geniuses (e.g. Minnelli’s Lust for Life) or to try to recreate the artistic vision in terms of the filmic image in simple terms. What he does do is to focus on the artist ‘working’, getting his sleeves rolled up, grinding ingredients for paints etc. He also gives us ideas about Turner’s approach in oblique ways, such as the joke about the elephant in the Hannibal canvas. I found these ideas about the working life of the painter one of the most interesting aspects of the film (see the image below about the hanging practices of the Royal Academy).

Turner in the main gallery of the Royal Academy where the artists continued to work on paintings after they were hung.

Turner in the main gallery of the Royal Academy where the artists continued to work on paintings after they were hung.

Something else that Leigh hasn’t made is a film about the personal life of the painter and his relationships. We see something of Turner’s involvement with three women, but only rarely do we learn anything about these women and what Turner means to them. I’m not a Mike Leigh fan and partly it’s because I find that characters in his films are sometimes presented in a cruel way. The housekeeper is shown as a devoted servant/housekeeper who is occasionally ‘used’ sexually but who clearly dotes on her employer. She has a progressive skin disease, psoriasis, which I should have recognised from Denis Potter’s The Singing Detective. This is shown but not commented on. She also has a comic way of moving about the house – rather like, as one of my friends commented, Julie Walters as ‘Mrs Overall’ in Acorn Antiques. It wasn’t until I read the Press Notes that I realised that this housekeeper ‘Hannah Danby’ (Dorothy Atkinson) is the niece of Mrs Danby (Ruth Sheen), the woman with whom Turner has two children who in 1828 are young women. I must have missed that exchange of dialogue – some of it was difficult to hear. Turner is most settled when with a third woman, the twice widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Overall, I think it is possible to see Turner as a rounded character who has many good qualities despite his deception of these women. But I never see Leigh as a humanist. He seems to want his characters to be exaggerated in some way. I’m trying to imagine a Mike Leigh melodrama where some form of ‘excess’ or exaggeration would be worked into the style of the film, but I just can’t see it.

The visual essay in the film is based around the cinematography of Dick Pope, Leigh’s long-time collaborator. Working with a digital format for the first time, Pope had the inspired idea of using classic 1950s lenses (used on the Everest documentaries in the early 1950s) with an Alexa camera. According to Pope:

These are lenses that have since been re-mounted and are now in great demand in advertising. A very retro lens construction, with tiny rear lenses . . . They have a very gentle, very romantic character, and are truly lovely at 75mm or 100mm on faces. They were a fundamental tool for this movie along with Alexa and Codex.

“This film was a joy to shoot”, admits Pope. “We had resplendent weather for the duration. Perhaps Turner’s blessing from heaven? I don’t think the project could have been done with grey or cloudy weather because, as the painter admits at the end of the film: “Sun is god”. (from the Codex website: http://www.codexdigital.com/casestudies/painting-with-light

‘Codex’ refers to the Codex Digital company which has become an industry leader in terms of recording, storage and workflow hardware and software to be used with digital cameras. Pope argues that it was his experience using Codex RAW systems on a previous shoot that made it a good choice for Mr. Turner.

Dick Pope with Leigh and his actors on location for a shoot depicting Turner's 'shop gallery' organised by his father (Paul Jesson, on the extreme left). Image from www.codexdigital.com

Dick Pope with Leigh and his actors on location for a shoot depicting Turner’s ‘shop gallery’ organised by his father (Paul Jesson, to the left of Timothy Spall). Image from http://www.codexdigital.com

I’ve suggested that Leigh’s approach to representing Turner’s ‘vision’ ‘isn’t conventional. The main tenet of Leigh and Pope, working with production design and effects was to see the second quarter of the 19th century as Turner himself saw it. He was given the title of ‘painter of light’, the same term often used to describe what a cinematographer does. Pope and Leigh were lucky with the weather after they decided to follow Leigh’s practice and shoot only on location. Pope relied on available light as much as possible, waiting for the right time of day. He matched Turner’s palette by choosing the same colours where possible and then tweaking the digital images. The landscape shots are stunning but Pope argues that much of the film is about the interiors and this is where the 2.35:1 ‘Scope frame proved most useful, allowing Leigh to compose single shots with complex movements of actors in 19th century buildings and also to give us Turner’s perspectives on these scenes. I can see that I’m going to need the Blu-ray of Mr. Turner and to study it in detail to see exactly what Dick Pope means in his interviews.

I realise that I’ve not mentioned the acting and the music. The latter worked well, but there was so much else going on I didn’t have the time to think about it. The acting is what you might expect from a Mike Leigh film in which every actor enthusiastically gets into character through rehearsals and improvisation. Timothy Spall learned to paint so he would look authentic in the role (I think that I’ve learned about Turner’s sketching style which seemed odd to me as a non-artist). Much has been made of Spall’s grunts, another example perhaps of the Leigh method of discovering a reference in descriptions of Turner and then exaggerating it. I didn’t mind this so much – Spall creates an interesting character, physically different perhaps to the real figure, but believable as a painter both validated and criticised by his peers.

The inset showing the scene from the film against Turner's painting of HMS Temeraire being taken to the breakers' yard' (from IndieWire – see link below)

The inset showing the scene from the film against Turner’s painting of HMS Temeraire being taken to the breakers’ yard’ (from IndieWire – see link below)

The only criticism I would have of the whole production is that I thought the lighting of the images created by merging Pope’s cinematography with CGI to visualise Turner’s experience of seeing the Temeraire being towed to the breakers’ yard (the subject of his most famous painting) just didn’t work. Pope tells us the sunset is real and that it was shot in virtually the same part of the Thames estuary as the painting’s setting. He argues that the CGI that creates the movement of the ship(s) works well, but for me it has that artificial sheen. The image above comes from an interview on IndieWire.

The film has been Leigh’s most successful at the box office, making £6.3 million as its cinema run is coming towards its end. It did however cost over £8 million and needs to make around £20 million to move towards covering its costs. The international and the North American ‘domestic’ markets are going to be very important plus those ancillary sales.

I hope I’ve convinced anyone who has got this far that the film is very well worth seeing. Just don’t expect a conventional artist biopic! The trailer below includes the CGI mentioned above (and also shows the very beautiful opening credits design) – but beware it is one of those trailers that shows you glimpses of many of the best scenes in the film:

It’s a Wonderful Life (US 1946)

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Ordinary citizens rally round!

This Hollywood classic is playing at several local cinemas during the festive season. I went to see it with some friends on Sunday. The film stood up well. This is one of the great performances by Jimmy Stewart and he is well supported by a galaxy of familiar Hollywood performers. The long flashback that opens the film works really well as we get to know (along with Clarence) the Bailey family and the residents of Bedford Falls. The dark chaos of noir which follows subverts this world as the dark side of George Bailey’s world emerges.

This was the first time that I had revisited the film for several years, possibly earlier than 2008. But the memories of that year offered an interesting news slant on the film. I have always found a problem in the way that Henry F Potter keeps his ill-gotten $8,000. But now, I realise that the film both references the Great Depression and is extraordinarily prescient about its recent successor. Portersville is the sort of urban world in which David Cameron and George Osborne would feel completely at home. Potter, like his peers on Wall Street and in the City, successfully grows richer on the travails of the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association. The remedy for this is not the justified expropriation of his ill-gotten riches but requires ordinary working people to bail out the deficit and the local financial system. Which is why we don’t see Potter at the end of the film: he is at home counting his loot.

Sony’s non-Interview

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The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.

The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.

President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).

In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.

Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.

From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.

The Bishop’s Wife (USA 1947)

A Christmas Tale.

A Christmas Tale.

This was the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House Christmas screening. It has been re-released on DCP by Park Circus for the festive season: a good transfer.

The film opens with snow on the ground and a helpful and handsome man spreading the spirit of Christmas by helping people in the shops and streets. Then we meet Julia, wife of Bishop Henry Brougham, buying a Christmas tree. At the shop she meets old friend and atheist (or at least agnostic) Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). The helpful stranger re-appears, claiming to know the Professor.  Later we learn that he is an angel named Dudley sent down to answer the ‘prayer’ of Henry, currently obsessed with raising funds to build a new cathedral. As you might guess the answer to the Bishop’s prayer is not quite what he expects and as the title suggests much of the narrative is concerned with Julia rather than her husband Henry. The Bishop’s ‘real’ problem is his loss of contact with both Julia and older friends and parishioners from his first parish St Timothy’s.

As Time Out notes

Cary’s charm works as successfully upon audiences as it does on the film’s characters’

Bishop Henry appears the only one resistant to Dudley’s charm. Julia sports a new hat and the maid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and the secretary Mildred (Sara Haden) start to sport flowers in their hair. Daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) enjoys bedtime moral stories and the family dog, a Saint Bernard, forsakes his usual mealtime place by his master to sit alongside Dudley. However, in what is almost a Hollywood convention, this amiable pooch disappears about half-way through the film.

Clearly the film (directed by Henry Koster) owes a debt to earlier films, especially Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The re-release would appear to aim to provide a companion film for that regular seasonal favourite. And the film has a number of references to the earlier classic. There is the Angel, like Clarence (Henry Travers) in the earlier film he is a ‘lower class’ angel (Henry Travers seeming to me to be a more convincing embodiment). In both films the main character has arrived at a crisis in his life which relates to a problem with money, or lack of it. Part of the problem is personalised in a wealthy but anti-social character – Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and here Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). There are also parallel sequences. The Capra film has an early scene of a frozen lake: we have a frozen pond in the Koster film, and the leader of a gang of boys is the same actor who played the young George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson). There is an ethnic bar, Martini’s, in one film: an ethnic restaurant, Michel’s, in the other.

Both films open with the crisis in place. The Capra film then presents a flashback running almost half the film to fill in plot and character; in The Bishop’s Wife this is done through dialogue. This leads to a lack of intensity in the latter and there is no attempt at a world of noir, one of the impressive features in the Capra film. The lack of emotional intensity in the Koster film is re-inforced by the casting. The type of characters played by Niven and Grant means that they rarely display the sort of emotional intensity that Jimmy Stewart brings to George Bailey. On the other hand Loretta Young does provide a subtle range of emotions as the wife who is emotionally deprived.

It seems likely that none of Samuel Goldwyn, Frank Capra or Henry Koster actually believed in the existence of angel or miracles. And both films have contradictions in the plotting of the resolution. In It’s a Wonderful Life the major problem is that Potter retains his ill-gotten $8,000. The Bishop’s Wife ticks more boxes in this respect, providing a conversion of Mrs Hamilton. This is performed by Dudley going back into her past: the nearest this film comes to the flashbacks of Bedford Falls. And Henry, like George Bailey, does seem to realise what really matters in life. However, as the film ends with Henry delivering a sermon in St Timothy’s on Christmas night, the words of the sermon have been dictated by Dudley.

Besides intensity the film lacks the community dimension of It’s a Wonderful Life. That film offers a sense of Bedford Falls as a community which motivates George Bailey’s life and work. The Bishop’s Wife fails to develop a similar sense of community, offering rather a limited circle of characters. When the banks close, the Bedford Falls’ citizens besieging the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association offices thye form a community that is familiar to us. A parallel scene in The Bishop’s Wife has the boy’s choir at St Timothy’s church, rehearsing for an appeal event, singing for Julia and Dudley. But the boys, as the minister, are all complete strangers to us.

The film is as sugary as that by Capra but lacks the dark tropes and intensity. It is very well played by the cast, including the many familiar supporting faces. It is finely photographed by Gregg Toland, with some notable mise en scène and deep staging. Early on, as Henry returns home in an ill-temper, Julia, holding the family dog, stands like a frightened school girl in a corner – speaking volumes about her emotional state. Later, as Dudley recounts a moral tale to Debby, other characters assemble and listen – the deep staging presenting the characters spread across the depth of field.

There is a fine skating sequence, though performed by doubles. And there are some nice and effective special effects, by John Fulton and Harry Redmond Jnr. The music score won an Academy Award nomination, as did the director and the film was nominated as Best Picture.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Script by Robert E Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici from the novel by Robert Nathan. Director Henry Koster. Cinematography Gregg Toland. Music Hugo Friedhofer. Distributed by RKO.

IMDB lists Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as uncredited script contributors – I rather think the scene at Michel’s might be their handiwork.