The title character—a representation of J.M.W. Turner—is, on a personal level, a monster almost half of the time: he uses his maid as a sperm receptacle, he stomps on people when he disagrees with them, he is ugly and weird, and when he isn’t speaking in an incomprehensible baroque style, he’s grunting at people… and the grunts mean a lot more than some of what he says. He’s a horrid, horrid man.
Oh, and (yes, even from a film you can tell) he smells funny, too. The movie tells the story of his apparent failure as an artist, and how he became a laughingstock derided by everyone from Queen Victoria down to lowly stage players.
And it’s the best film I’ve seen in ages.
It’s because it’s not really a film about J.M.W. Turner at all… but I’ll get to that.
It’s a Mike Leigh film, of course, so the major theme is failure—how people react to it, how they work through it, how they live on after it, how they sometimes overcome it and sometimes fail to do so. (Leigh’s Another Year, a devastating film I saw a few years ago, is a brilliant essay on the cost and psychology of failing to rise up and overcome one’s own failure, instead giving into the self-destructiveness it can kindle in some of us.)
The visuals, of course, are stunning, with many landscapes looking like paintings by Turner, come to life… but it’s the details that kill me: all films are made up of hyperdetermined images, but the detail in this film is utterly stunning. Every room, every wall, every table looks like it was stolen from a bygone era. And the landscapes really are breathtaking. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
The performances are superb, and Turner (summoned from the grave by the brilliant Timothy Spall) comes across, as I say, as half-monster… but also as halfway wonderful, to some people.
Some of the characters are probably unfairly—that is, inaccurately—depicted, for laughs: Joshua McGuire’s John Ruskin is ridiculous, and punchably obnnoxious (snotty lisp and all) and he seems more a twit than the genius he apparently was. Similarly, the character of Sarah Danby, Turner’s former lover (and mother of his two daughters, whom he repeatedly denies having) is played as the pitch-perfect harridan: while Leigh shows her little sympathy (until he must), she has a fair complaint against Turner, after all. The deadbeat dad was not, in any way, a 20th century invention.
But these characters are figures in a drama, and while Leigh is interested in historical accurancy in some ways, he also knows he’s making a movie, not writing history. There are other, more sympathetic characters, of course, from Marion Bailey’s wonderfully innocent (but worldly) Mrs. Booth, to the amazing Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson. These two play Turner’s father and his long-suffering maid, both astonishingly brilliantly: the former, as a means of showing Turner’s capacity for love (their reunion at the start of the film is well-described as being like the reunion of two amiable turtles, a magical scene):
… and the latter generally a means to revealing his utter cruelty.
Even the brief and cutting comments made by Sinéad Matthews playing a young Queen Victoria (who declares one of Turner’s famous paintings “a dirty yellow mess”) does a bang-up job: really, everyone who appears onscreen in this film does an amazing job of inhabiting his or her character, of breathing life vivid, heart-rending life into it. You can smell the sweat, and taste the love, and feel the pain of many of these characters, and Leigh’s screenwriting combined with superb casting ensures even minor characters are rendered vividly alive.
(The best minor character, perhaps, is the self-destructive Benjamin Robert Haydon, a painter whose work is, like Turner’s late-career work, excluded from display at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual show; Turner bears the disgrace gracefully, while Haydon, deep in debt and in dire straits, just proceeds to make things worse for himself. We’ve all known that guy: hell, some of us have even been that guy from time to time. Martin Savage plays the mad, self-destructive, ridiculously role flawlessly.)
Yet I can’t help but think that the film ultimately succeeds, despite whatever distortions of history Leigh perpetrates (this criticism seems a little overblown to me), primarily because if Turner is an everyman, then Leigh’s film is also an assessment of the failure—and, nested within it, the victory—of the Victorians over us. In the introduction to his monumental history of the era, The Victorians, A.N. Wilson commented something to the effect that even today, we can feel the Victorians silently watching and judging us… but where are they, if not within us?
Leigh seems to me to be holding up a mirror, showing us the reflections we ought to see of those inner Victorians—not only their exploitative and unrepentant imperialism, classism, rampant misogyny, general backwardness, but also the wonders they achieved: triumphs in the arts, in science and applied technology, in early telecommunications, and so much more. The silence that follows the brief discussion of the slave ships—ships like those Turner painted so beautifully—is telling.
How much was achieved in a world without digital machines to do the mathematics, without much precedent on which to base their new steam powered machines, without realizing they were wiping out the world they took for granted—those vast, gorgeous natural landscapes not the least—is both inescapable and mind-boggling, and ever-present in this film. And of course, we see Turner painting them, in acts of profound ugliness: spitting on the canvas, waving his brush violently. How to separate the ugly from the beautiful? How to look without denying or ignoring that both are not only there, but are inextricably intertwined?
I can’t say what I think of the movie as a biopic, therefore: I still don’t really know much about Turner the man, and I know enough now to know that Ruskin wasn’t like in the film. (And that the story about his aversion to pubic hair on a real live woman, as contrasted with Greek statues, is a myth.)
But as a film about the Victorian era, and our uneasy, conflicted relationship with its triumphs and its failings alike—Mr. Turner is simply monumental.