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:
Goon is billed as a ‘sports comedy’. It can also be more narrowly defined as a comedy about ‘minor league’ sport and it’s related to the sports biopic since the story is loosely based on the brief career of Doug Smith who wrote a book about his time as an ‘enforcer’ in minor league ice hockey from 1988 through to the late 1990s. The film could also be described as a ‘comedy-drama’. An ‘enforcer’ is a semi-official ‘fighter’ in an ice-hockey team whose job is to protect the team’s star player and also to intimidate the other team. Because ice hockey has always been a very physical game, governing bodies have tolerated a certain amount of violence on the ice. Some spectators are also keen to support enforcers. This violence is obviously attractive to filmmakers as it enables various conventional storylines and provides narrative devices to pep up genre narratives. The best-known ice hockey comedy focusing on violent play as a deliberate tactic is probably Slapshot (US 1977) in which Paul Newman is directed by George Roy Hill.
I missed Goon on release in January 2012 in the UK and I’m glad I caught most of it on Film4 last night. I found the film interesting for several reasons. First, I always find Canadian genre pictures have a different flavour to them even when, like Goon, they involve Hollywood stars. Second, the milieu of the minor or ‘semi-pro’ leagues takes the narrative into small-town locations with a more authentic working-class feel. Goon is a slight disappointment in this regard since, presumably for financial support reasons, most of the film was made in Manitoba around Winnipeg when the action in the story is supposed to be located in Eastern Canada. The enforcer’s team is the fictitious Halifax Highlanders. Even so, it is interesting to see a film that purports to be featuring St. Johns Newfoundland at one point.
The central character, the ‘goon’ is played by the American Pie actor Seann William Scott and the ‘villain’ – Ross Rhea, the legendary enforcer in the league – is played by Liev Schreiber. Writers Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg have developed the character based on Doug Smith so that he was adopted by a Jewish family (the father played by Eugene Levy, another actor internationally famous because of American Pie). Doug feels ‘stupid’ because his father and his brother are doctors and he works as a bouncer. An incident when he is watching a hockey game leads him to try out as an enforcer and he becomes successful. The narrative then leads him towards a showdown with the Schreiber character, while a sub-plot covers his relationship with the man he is there to protect, a former ace player who despises Doug because he is not a skater or a good hockey player. The ‘comedy’ in a film that is more bloody than funny is partly derived from the romcom strand. I thought this worked quite well. Doug off the ice is rather sweet and quite stoical in his attempts to woo Eva (Alison Pill). This trope, i.e. the sweet guy outside the sporting arena, is familiar from boxing pictures but it works here as well. I should point out that as well as the violence, the language is also very harsh – this may be why so many sports fans like the film.
Directed by Michael Dowse (whose CV includes directing the UK comedy It’s All Gone Pete Tong in 2004) the film seems to have earned most of its $6 million+ box office in Canada and the UK with just a limited US release. North American sports pictures generally don’t do as well at the international box office as they do domestically. Ice hockey is popular in Northern Europe (Sweden especially) and Russia and the film does seem to have reached these territories, though perhaps only on DVD. I read that the violence tolerated in the US/Canada is not acceptable in European leagues so I’m intrigued as to what they made of the sport-based content. The rest of the narrative is universal in appeal and I think that clearly Canadian content probably helps sell the film in small towns in other countries – the IMDB message board for the film has a lively discussion of the Canadian accents in the film (which to my inexpert ear didn’t seem as pronounced as in some other Canadian films). As a Brit I find ice hockey to be the most accessible North American sport possibly because of its important role in Canadian culture. I’m still grinning at the sight of large posters depicting the Queen in the various arenas in the film. I’ve never seen that at a UK venue (but perhaps others have?).
You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.
Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?