Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mr. Turner

J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840

MR. TURNER             B                     
Great Britain  France  Germany  (150 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Mike Leigh

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

Fallacies of Hope, unfinished poem by J.M.W. Turner, 1812

A rather somber and self-reflective work delving into the late period life (coinciding with the director’s own late period) of 19th century British landscape painter J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851), a controversial and misunderstood figure in his day, but now recognized as one of the preeminent landscape artists from the late Romanticism era (1770 – 1848) who prefigured both the Impressionist and more abstract Modern artists.  The son of a renowned barber and a mother inflicted with mental disturbances, the artist was initially trained in pencil sketches and watercolor, known for keeping extensive sketchbooks, traveling widely throughout Britain, particularly in Wales, but also France and Switzerland, studying in the Louvre art museum in Paris, where he eventually earned his reputation as an oil painter and as a master of maritime scenes where his emotional style is expressed through more dramatic renderings, reflective of a highly active imagination.  Instead of observing or portraying nature as it is, Turner emphasizes the power nature has over man, hitting a nerve with the public as he moves away from form and definition, where his landscapes present tumultuous waves from a stormy sea that seem about to envelop anything in their path, accentuating a highly unique aspect of nature, using blurry or undefined images that require the viewers to use their own imaginations, offering a contrast of vibrant color and unsettling emotion.  As Turner grew older, he grew more eccentric, having few close friends other than his father who lived with him for thirty years and worked as his assistant.  His father’s death in 1929 had a profound effect on him, leaving him socially isolated where he was subject to bouts of depression.  The film shuns the conventional biopic style and instead turns more abstract, creating a film of brief, episodic moments where the viewer is required to fill in the missing gaps, meticulously shot by Dick Pope, expressed with great craftsmanship and intimate detail, where the artist’s imagination often blends into the reality depicted onscreen, literally taking the audience inside several Turner landscapes that eventually blossom into several of his best known paintings.  The downside is the use of several CGI enhanced landscapes that add an unnecessary touch of the surreal, an odd mix to an otherwise unscrupulously realistic work.
First and foremost is the man himself, where Timothy Spall, known for making the most of smaller character roles literally inhabits the role of a lifetime as Turner in much the same way J.K. Simmons approaches Whiplash (2014), as both literally devour their roles as somewhat vile and despicable human beings, yet both characters believe they are capable of achieving greatness.  Spall’s sheer physicality will turn off many viewers who prefer movies with matinee idol good looks, where instead he’s a sight for sore eyes, describing himself at one point, “When I peruse myself in the looking glass, what I see is a gargoyle,” displaying a rotund figure with crooked teeth and a face that seems weathered by the storms, a kind of grumpy, Grinch-like figure that for a good portion of the film barely utters a word but instead resorts to any number of audible sounds emanating from his character, from grunts and groans to sobs and indecipherable mutterings, rarely offering lucid opinions or points of view, all of which have a way of keeping his inner thoughts mysterious and self-contained.  We learn much more about him by the way he confidently struts and traipses around the remote countryside alone and paints outdoors in all manner of light, where his figure is seen silhouetted against the first yellow bursts of a shimmering morning to the fading violets and pinks of the evening sky, returning to his studio afterwards where he’s tended to by his long-suffering housemaid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), a near mute caretaker whose slavish devotion and cruel mistreatment at the hands of Turner is reminiscent of the dutiful Irm Hermann in Fassbinder’s THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972), one of the most silently oppressed characters in all of cinema.  This rough edge of callous indifference adds an element of pitiless cruelty to his gruff persona, a disregarding meanness that does not endear him to audiences, yet does reflect the Dickensian coldness of the times, while also reflecting similar attitudes towards his insufferably demanding wife (Ruth Sheen) and two children that he refuses to recognize.     
This irascible quality of Turner’s disposition plays like an inside joke to Mike Leigh fans, where Turner’s bristling recalcitrance with art critics matches Leigh’s own intemperate outbursts, both displaying a recognizable impatience for the limited outlooks and imaginations of others.  Opening a year or so before his father’s death, the film begins with the director taking the audience inside a Turner painting in progress, with a luxurious extended shot of a windmill silhouetted against an orange/yellow sky, as the camera follows two Flemish women carrying buckets of water on their shoulders, tracking them as they make their way down the banks of a canal before finally revealing the figure of Turner in a top hat feverishly sketching the scene.  This serves as a wordless introduction into the director’s third historical period piece out of twelve films, the others being TOPSY-TURVY (1999) and VERA DRAKE (2004), two of his best efforts.  Roughly spanning the last 25 years of his life, Turner’s life coincides with the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, though it plays out onscreen in small, self-contained scenes where nothing out of the ordinary happens, yet we are pulled into his world through several key relationships, the most prominent being his father (Paul Jesson), a larger than life figure whose unconditional love for his son emanates his every move.  “The darkness is to a purpose,” he informs visitors to Turner’s studio as they briefly wait in a dark candle-lit room before entering a gallery of his paintings where the landscapes and seascapes are literally throbbing with light, where the artist at work is seen in another room peering through a peep-hole at the prospective customers.  This thoroughly contrived act of salesmanship offers a hint of humor between father and son who both seem to relish this little bit of chicanery, though it’s a fascinating introduction to his works, with turbulent waters reflecting the frenzied intensity of the waves, where the sunset in the background exhibits a power that nature has over man, portraying nature’s beauty, serenity, and peace, while the variety of layered colors can be seen shining through, creating a glowing and luminous effect.

Like other works featuring pre-occupied and thoroughly unlikable protagonists, such as the Coen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) or Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014), this is a hard sell, even to viewers drawn to the artistry of Turner, as this is no flattering portrait, but instead appears driven to debunk any thought of heroic nobility in his character, where he sleeps in his clothes and paints all day, accentuating his crudeness in social company, where he is hardly a gentleman, as the lewd behavior on display in his personal life is diametrically opposite the shimmering beauty reflected in his paintings.  Frederick Wiseman’s recent film National Gallery (2014) includes a lengthy discussion about one of his earlier works, The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817, see Original, where Turner as an artist is depicted in particularly reverential language.  At least part of the problem here may be gleaned from Turner’s biographer, A.J. Finberg, who found the subject something of a bore, admitting privately the difficulty he had trying to find what drove the artist, as he was a private man who didn’t lead a particularly eventful life, appearing to be such an ordinary man, “The real trouble is that the only interesting thing about him is that he was the man who painted Turner’s pictures … [He] is only the unimportant nexus that binds the work together.”  Unlike John Constable (1776 – 1837), at the time his rival as the greatest of all English landscape painters, Turner was never educated formally and was barely able to express himself clearly even in the simplest business correspondence, yet early on he often attached to his exhibits quotations from his own particularly gloomy epic poem Fallacies of Hope.  The rivalry with Constable is evident during a mocking scene at the Royal Academy of Art, where the summer exhibition on display shows how paintings are literally all squashed together with barely an inch of wall space between them, which Turner describes as a veritable “cornucopia,” as various styles inevitably clash with one another, where he dabbles some red paint, the prominent color in Constable’s nearby painting, on one of his own completed canvases, where viewers nearly swoon in disbelief, hardly realizing the enhancement.  Queen Victoria was not an admirer of his works, calling them “vile,” and “a yellow mess.”  Due to the uneventful and anti-hero depiction of the protagonist, the film is one of Leigh’s least emotionally engaging works, something his other films are known for, even as he introduces Marion Bailey (the director’s real-life partner), who may actually be the best thing in the film as the last object of his affection, the warmhearted and pleasantly lucid owner of a boarding house in the seaside town of Margate he frequently visits when taking trips into the countryside.  Even she, however, cannot elevate the aloofness and often unconcerned nature of the material.   

Budget limitations reportedly prevented Leigh from covering Turner’s career-defining visits to Europe, especially Venice, and instead created a narrower focus on various domestic settings at home in England.  Of special significance, Turner turned down the offer of a millionaire who wanted to buy his entire collection, deciding instead to bequeath the entire British nation with his collections, giving them away to the public who could enjoy his paintings for free.  When Turner died, his will was contested by the family he refused to recognize, amassing a fortune of over £140,000, citing more than 19,000 drawings and sketches in pencil, including about 300 colored drawings, leading to a long, protracted court battle, though the works of art contained in his own house became the public property of the nation under the care of the National Gallery of London, which currently lists nearly 32,000 of his recorded works.  Eleven sketchbooks were belatedly discovered in Turner’s house, including some that were made for his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, while five containing “material of an erotic nature” were deliberately set aside early on by the court.  His bicentennial was celebrated in 1975 by a vast exhibition at the Royal Academy, comprising some 450 works, while in 2009 – 2010 the Tate Gallery in London and Grand Palais in Paris celebrated “Turner and His Painters,” retracing the artist’s evolution and personal vision.  In 2011 – 2012, the National Gallery featured a major exhibition of Turner alongside 16th century Italian painters Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as 17th century Dutch Masters Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer.  Turner’s stature as an artist has never been greater, where today this seemingly borderline inarticulate man is viewed not only as a man out of his time, but a true visionary, arguably the finest painter and one of the greatest artists in British history.    

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