Several months after its American release, “Mr. Turner” has finally arrived in the hinterlands. It comes trailing clouds of glory, Best Actor and Cinematographer at Cannes, Best Actor from London and American film critics, Best Director from Bafta. It was nominated for four Academy Awards for looking and sounding authentic – costumes, cinematography, score – but won none. Actor and Director were completely ignored by the Academy. As John McEnroe would say, “You have got to be kidding!”
It is a remarkable film about the greatest English artist, J. M. W.Turner, (1775-1851). For director, screenwriter, auteur Mike Leigh it is another summit in a distinguished career that has brought him seven Academy Award nominations and no wins, a Palme d’Or at Cannes, a Golden Lion in Venice and a shelfful of British film awards for pictures like “Secrets and Lies,” “Vera Drake,” and “Another Year.”
Like Robert Altman, “Boyhood’s” Richard Linklater and any number of European directors who make small personal films, he often employs the same company of actors. Many have centered on working class lives. This one, like the wonderful” Topsy-Turvy” about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” provides a portrait of an artist at work. One of Leigh’s favorite actors is the star of “Mr. Turner.” Timothy Spall has played working class blokes in several previous films as well as a beloved comic opera star in “Topsy-Turvy.” but his Turner outdoes them all. Rarely has a genius been painted so faithfully, warts and all.
Peter Ackroyd in his brief life of Turner insists he was representative of a special subspecies of Britain, the London Cockney visionary, like William Blake. Turner’s father was a barber, his mother went mad when he was just a child. The father doted on his son, early recognized his precocious talent and saw to it that he received instruction. He was a prodigy, admitted to the royal Academy at 15.
Turner’s first major oil, painted at 21, displayed many of the characteristics that would continue to appear in his work – an interest in the effects of light, weather, the sea. He ushered in the Romantic Era in the visual arts, lived long enough to record the change from sail to steam and the coming of rail and photography. Before he died, his later looser works forecast the coming of Impressionism, a generation in the future.
The film joins him in middle age, already successful. He is a gruff, uncongenial man who, in Paul Johnson’s phrase, devoted his entire life “to the acquisition of complete mastery of his craft.” He traveled incessantly to Europe and through England completing thousands of sketches that were his raw materials. In the studio these became series of watercolors and huge oils. He was a curious, tireless creative man.
He never married but cohabited for some time with a widow and her daughters whom he later unceremoniously discarded. They appear in the film seeking alms which he declines to give. He also relied on a self-abasing servant who cooked and cleaned for him and with whom he had impersonal sex. For 30 years, his father lived with Turner, mixed his colors, managed his studio, and manned the showroom leaving Turner to paint.
He lived frugally, as might be expected of a self-made Cockney, was cautious, even miserly with funds, invested wisely and left an estate worth a minimum of $14 million in today’s dollars, not counting a fortune in art. At his death he wanted his work to be kept together and to that end bequeathed his private collection to the nation, which stupidly squandered the gift by selling off pieces willy-nilly.
In the course of the film we see him at varnishing day, displaying a competitive streak, especially with the vain John Constable, in the great Country Houses of patrons, tramping around the countryside in pursuit of his great subject, nature in its most dramatic moods. He once had himself lashed to a mast so he could observe a blizzard at sea without going overboard.
As he aged, particularly after the death of his father, he became even less outgoing, secretive, suspicious, touchy. Seemingly a hard man, he was in fact sensitive to slights and criticism. He was hurt when his late style, years ahead of its time, was mocked. He was in some ways, the Beethoven of visual artists. He was saved from a complete descent into eccentricity and isolation by a late relationship with another widow.
Sophia Boone, played brilliantly by Marion Bailey, was a Margate innkeeper with whom Turner stayed when sketching a favorite place known to him from his boyhood. Their relationship lasted almost 20 years until his death and was well-advanced before she discovered he was not Mr. Mallord but among the most famous men of his day. Thereafter he was known to their neighbors as Mr. Boone, continuing to disguise his identity. Characteristically, he seems to have contributed nothing to the upkeep of this household.
Paul Jesson as the artist’s father is endearing. And a large cast of minor character, encompassing all strata of society from tarts, mariners and shopkeepers to the youthful Ruskin, the aged Lord Egremont, one of his patrons, and Victoria and Albert, makes the film as rich and varied a picture of the age as a Dickens novel. One viewing is insufficient to absorb all it has to offer.
Through it all strides Spall’s Turner, stocky, unstoppable, grunting, muttering but always looking, looking with an eye like no other, and turning what he see into masterworks. If this wasn’t the Best Picture of 2014, it certainly belonged in the competition. And the notion that Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Steve Carrell deserved Oscar nominations and Spall’s performance didn’t is absurd.