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).
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.
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 usual 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 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: