Mr. Turner. A Quirky, Fascinating Bio-Pic

A quirky, fascinating bio-pic but unlikely to appeal to a mass audience.  That’s my best summation of Mr. Turner. I was a bit surprised that I had not seen even one trailer or heard any buzz about it until my assistant, Matthew asked me about it.   Had I heard there was a movie coming out about J. M. W. Turner?  Was it out yet?  He had heard it was getting good early reviews.   So, we began looking for the movie.  It was in very limited release and had not yet come to Dallas.   Last Friday (January 9th) it finally made it to our local Angelika theater.  So, a Saturday matinee was quickly planned.  

The movie is beautifully shot, the cinematographer clearly evoking Turner’s luminous, brilliant skies in the scenes of the artist walking out into a panoramic landscape at dawn or dusk.  The costuming, settings and interpersonal interactions give a wonderful glimpse into England during the first half of the 19th C.  And, for the committed art geek who knows the particularities of the Royal Academy of Art, which artists were on the ascendance during the time period and which were falling out of favor, this movie lushly alludes to all the politicking that goes into the world of artists, patrons and the business of art.  However, I could not help think about how my “regular” friends (those who don’t have extensive exposure to art history) would respond to the movie.   I assume there would be a lot of head scratching and wondering at the way the movie meanders through Turner’s life and jumps from scene to scene without developing much momentum.  

Dutch Boats in a Gale, 1801 Joseph Mallord William Turner, National Gallery, London, England

Dutch Boats in a Gale, 1801
Joseph Mallord William Turner, National Gallery, London, England

The movie opens somewhere around the year 1825. Turner is a successful artist of 50, a Royal Academician with a loyal following of wealthy British patrons.  He comes and goes from the comfortable London home he shares with his doting father and mousy housekeeper.  His father acts as his art preparer, ordering materials, mixing paints, stretching canvases and the like.  The housekeeper keeps the household running and apparently waits about in the shadows ready whenever Turner decides he needs to relieve himself sexually.  He is clearly a man who is used to getting his way.  His vituperous ex-wife shows up at his door more than once with his two daughters to heap blame onto him and rail against his lack of feeling for their needs.  But he seems to be completely able to ignore her, denying while he is out in society that he has never had a wife or children.  

Throughout the movie, we see his single-minded drive for his art.  He travels widely to find the best scenery to paint, rises at dawn and stays out on location long after the sun has set to record sunsets and weather conditions.  At one point he even has himself tied to the main mast of a ship in a blustering thunderstorm in order to experience the effects of the storm.  The movie progresses through this time of great success where he has plenty of patronage, is being lauded widely by the young art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and his paintings get prime positions at the Royal Academy’s annual art exhibition toward the later years when the Pre-Raphaelite taste for bright, sharply-focused figural scenes has become the taste of the day.  Toward the end, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert tour the RA’s annual exhibition and mutter quietly about the mushiness of Turner’s imagery.  Turner is standing just around the corner and hears this commentary.  We see him struggle with the ascendancy of a different style of art and with new inventions like the camera, which he fears will obviate the need for a landscape painter such as himself.  

The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The movie has some interesting side stories that are given just enough space to pique the viewer’s interest and make a good counterpoint to Turner’s life.  The history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) comes in and out of Turner’s life.  The two were students at the Royal Academy together as young men.  In middle age, Turner has become quite prosperous while Haydon struggles with poverty.  Haydon’s travails are interwoven with Turner’s story.  He was consigned to debtors’ prison twice and is never satisfied with the positions his paintings are given at the RA’s annual exhibit.  He is shown asking Turner for a loan and railing against the exhibition’s jurors who have placed his painting in a side room rather than given it prime position.  John Ruskin a generation younger than Turner, is presented as a foppish, self-important young man who loves to hear the sound of his own voice holding forth on the merits of one school of art over another. He helped Turner’s career with his favorable reviews during the early 1840’s and went on to tout the Pre-Raphaelites from 1848 on.  Ruskin is considered by many to be a leading British art critic of the Victorian era.  However, this movie encounters him as a bit of an upstart, a young intellectual who has yet to gain the respect of the best artists of the time.    

The movie ends rather anticlimactically with Turner’s death at 76 of heart failure.  In the course of the 2 ½ hours, the audience has wandered through the last 25 years of the artist’s life.  Timothy Spall, the English actor who plays the role brilliantly has revealed him as a unattractive, grunting, rather inarticulate person whose heartaches and limitations in his personal life are matched by his drive as an artist.  Turner cared deeply about his legacy as an artist.  Late in life he bequeathed most of his unsold works to British museums rather than accept a rather generous offer for purchase from a patron.  This movie reveals a complicated, brilliant artist and is quite rich with period detail for the art aficionado.  But, if you are looking for a great movie with a resolved plot and clear story line, best look elsewhere.  This one was destined for art-house theater release only.

Brenda Simonson-Mohle

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Check out the Official Trailer for Mr. Turner!