Mr. Turner is a movie about a walking oxymoron: a man-troll who plods through the streets as if he were carrying ten-pound hods on each shoulder; who emits piggish snorts in lieu of normal conversation but ventures to tell a woman who attracts him that her profile puts him in mind of a Greek goddess; who coldly loans a fellow painter and former friend, the depressed and endlessly complaining Benjamin Haydon, only half the sum requested, yet some time later casually forgives the debt even after Haydon has roundly abused him; who sincerely expresses an abiding love for his father, a retired barber, then later, in conversation with high-society types, denies he has any living parent; who sexually uses and abuses his devoted live-in housekeeper, abandons his former mistress and her two daughters, yet achieves domestic happiness in the last decade of his life with a widowed landlady, whom he treats with the utmost affection. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself,” but I think even Whitman would have been flummoxed by the contradictions of J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), who is now generally recognized as England’s greatest painter.

Flummoxed, at least, by the Turner played by Timothy Spall in a new film by writer-director Mike Leigh. Most biographies and biopics try to penetrate the mystery of what makes a great artist, but Mr. Turner deliberately preserves that mystery, visually ponders it, and seals it into our hearts and minds. In the film’s very first scene, two farm girls in Holland enter a rural landscape from screen right, chatting away in Dutch. The camera (operated by the great cinematographer Dick Pope, whose lighting often evokes Vermeer rather than Turner) stays on them in medium shot, pivots to take in their slow progress, their cheerful converse, and their attractive ordinariness. Gradually we become aware of a dot in the far distance against the skyline, a dot that turns out to be a man whom the girls never notice. They pass out of the frame; the man-dot remains. He seems to be painting. This dot is Turner, of course, and soon the scene will shift permanently to England, where our attention will always be properly focused on him as the protagonist of this drama. But with this first shot Mike Leigh has already instructed us that there is another protagonist sharing the screen with the hero and almost as important as he. This character is the material world through which Turner moves—not a world for us to revel in romantically, as we revel in the period appurtenances of Downton Abbey or other such high-toned PBS fare, but a world to be experienced as Turner experiences it: as an exigent, sweaty, impeding reality, in which he is just one more body struggling to make its way. One of the traditional pleasures of film is that a movie can be a time machine taking us into the distant past, but never has the distant past seemed less distant or more concretely felt than in this film.

Though Mr. Turner never strains to be a pseudo-documentary (as, say, Peter Watkins’s movies about Strindberg and Munch often do), it limns its early-nineteenth-century locales with an effortless authority I’ve seen equaled only in Leigh’s own Topsy-Turvy (set in Victorian England). The actors give the impression of having the real dirt of old London streets smeared on their shoes; the clothes always seem to be clothes and not costumes; the rooms appear actually lived in and scuffed by human contact. As Turner paints their elders, two aristocratic girls mock him with an insouciance that contains not a scintilla of our contemporary snark, and our hero absorbs it with the casualness of a man who knows both his business and his clientele. Painters paint, silly upper-class girls mock. If, as L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, Mike Leigh’s time machine of a movie takes us there with effortless authority.

In most good works of art, concreteness of detail supports the feeling of universality, and this is the case here. Turner’s need to find love, even at the cost of sloughing off those who don’t satisfy this need, is all too recognizable and feels bitterly true even though Leigh’s script doesn’t allow Turner to express his sexual dissatisfactions in words. Indeed, since Leigh persists in avoiding backstory throughout the movie, we have to deduce motivations from facial expressions, gestures, vocal inflections. This serves amazingly well most of the time. When the painter, without any erotic prelude (or permission), pulls his middle-aged housekeeper against him and paws at her bosom as if to make sure it’s still there, the moment speaks volumes about how old masculine prerogatives could obliterate affection and decency.

This movie isn’t merely a loose compilation of scenes from a famous life, a time machine without dramatic machinery. There is a definite dramatic progression signaled by the changes in the artist’s domestic arrangements. We see him first as a resident in London; then as a lodger in Margate, where he falls in love with a widowed landlady, Mrs. Booth (endearingly played by Marion Bailey); and finally as a householder in Chelsea. This physical journey is also an emotional one, moving from loneliness and sterile gropings to unofficialized but happy companionship. That might make it sound like a typical redemption story—a curmudgeon turning warm and cuddly under the influence of a good woman. But this isn’t the way it comes across in Mike Leigh’s hands. Here no one displays seismic shifts of feeling as if on cue. When his father dies, Turner is quiet and respectful, nothing more. But a few scenes later, while undressing a young prostitute to serve as his model, he not only bursts into tears but howls like a wild animal being tortured. Clearly this is a moment of delayed grief. But is there something about the girl that provokes it? We aren’t told. And why does Turner so suddenly forgive Haydon’s debt? Mrs. Booth’s softening influence? Turner’s guilt at the way he’s treated his family? Again, we’re not told. But do any of us react “appropriately” at the crucial moments in our lives? Don’t our reactions usually break out later, perhaps while we’re eating a candy bar or watching some nitwit TV program?

Timothy Spall—whose performance as Turner won a best award at the Cannes Film Festival but was not even nominated for an Oscar—employs a porcine gait and such a medley of grunts, snarls, and snuffles that I kept expecting tusks to emerge from his jutting lower lip. And why not? Let verbal and emotional spears be thrust into this animal’s hide. Let William Hazlitt complain that, in the painter’s late, almost abstract paintings, “all is without form and void.” Let the young Queen Victoria dismiss a late exhibit as rubbish. No matter. This animal called Turner, bristly and ponderous in physique, mercurial in temperament, knows his rightful place in the dangerous forest of life, and will not be deterred from claiming it.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the March 20, 2015 issue: View Contents
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