Perhaps my faithful readers might guess, based on my previously expressed feelings about bio-pics, what my feelings might be toward Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s recent film which illustrates the life of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Or perhaps such readers, faithful or faithless though they be, would rather not guess, and having tired of rhetorical gambits (of which I admittedly might be seen, albeit through a glass darkly, as the demented Erno Rubik), and on the verge of clicking off to less verbose pastures (of which there are admittedly plenty to choose from), might be heard, in a flourish of agitation similar to Mr. Turner’s own, to give a loud grunt and mutter gruffly, “Get on with it Goodrich!” I will admit that this dallying, in a patchy 19th century style, harbors not so much a lack of commentary on the film, but a feeling that such commentary will be, ultimately, banal. Not so the film, as it more than any recent effort makes the past live in a way that is fresh without being revisionist or even very unusual. In fact, aside from the performances, which are distinctive in the way that most of Mr. Leigh’s films tend to be, this could pass for a more burnished than average BBC production. No, it is just that the film does not inspire any radical reaction; indeed, my greatest encomium would be, simply, “go see it.” Some films say something, others simply are. Mr. Turner falls into the latter category in the way that (may God forgive me for the trite comparison) Mr. Dickens novels do. Analysis can be practiced on such works, but what is the point? The reading, or in the this case, the seeing and hearing of them, is the totality of the experience, as there is little to debate or to reinscribe with the stylus of our own intellects (considerable, naturally).
The film takes up Mr. Turner later in life, near upon the death of his own father (and studio assistant) and follows his life, in fairly straightforward fashion, until his own death. We see Turner at work, but unlike many overly-flowery films that focus on the lives of artists, he is neither tormented overmuch, nor is he portrayed as the mere inspired prism through which his experience of the world is refracted. We see Mr. Turner within the landscapes that he translates, and they are digitally created to be ravishing, but rather than communicating a ravishment that serves to inspire, they focus us instead on the singular love Turner had for seeing, for observing closely, and for staking out points of view. There is little that separates such sequences from many conventional films about artists, except that Mr. Turner is not typical, and does not communicate his love for many things conventionally. Neither is he a blackguard, a rogue, or a scoundrel, though – in fact, he is often very cute and lovable, precisely because he is not so in any conventional sense. His love of the world, and the things within, only unfolds gradually, through our observation of Mr. Spall’s keen performance, which discloses psychology without psychologizing, and makes Mr. Turner an enigma without posing any questions to be answered or problems to be debated. He is a man unlike others in his time, place, and profession, and the film gives us enough detail to perhaps posit why this may be, without really caring why it is so. Why does he deny the existence of his children? Why does he travel incognito? What drives him to adopt an unusual style that, while avant-garde, is not openly oppositional? How does he manage to seem both uneducated and taciturn while also being held in esteem as a wit and as a man with opinions both worthy and respectable? What lies in his heart? What does he truly care about? He is portrayed as both a workman-like professional and as someone capable of being transported by visions; as a sharp critic of his contemporaries and also a defender of tradition. He is, in short, like many outsiders, a man who can both inhabit his specific time and place in history and also see outside of it, and himself, to the absurd nature of this habitation. Timothy Spall, giving a tour de force that is of the quiet, incremental variety, must be given full credit here; rarely has an artist been portrayed with such depth and humanity.
The film itself, as I previously mentioned, and like most of Mr. Leigh’s output, is well observed. (Indeed, although I hate to use such an overused phrase, the early part of the film is sumptuous in the level of its period detail). I have tended to like Mr. Leigh’s films when they are of the darker, more modern variety, but it is often hit-or-miss. Sometimes, as in his early TV features (such as Spall’s first collaboration with Leigh, 1982’s Home Sweet Home) or in Naked (from 1993), the verisimilitude provided by Leigh’s famous working methods provide realities and truths that are harrowing and heartbreaking; other times (as in 1996’s Secrets and Lies), the films feel like huge agglomerations of mannerisms, tics, and characterizations that can veer toward the patronizing or stereotyped. Mr. Turner follows neither path; indeed, it is gentle and self-effacing. It does feel a little long, especially in the last third, which is mostly devoted to Turner getting old and traveling back and forth to his common-law wife (Mrs. Booth, whose name he takes) in declining health. There is little reason that we must stick with the artist until death simply because death makes for a natural ending point to the “story.” All the same, the final shots of the film are penetrating, and sad. Here, we see the man in full, not in the sense of warts and all, or in the sense of good and bad, but instead as a star, a light-bringer who, despite his gruff style and sometimes irresponsible interpersonal behavior, brought meaning and purpose to others. To the one he shone upon, the gift brought happiness and the purpose of life was reinforced; to the one he turned away from, he bequeathed sorrow and loneliness. The artist, more than any other figure, is tasked with the burden of being “true” to him or her self. We begin, by the end of the film, to see that perhaps for Turner this is the key to his behavior, both the positive and the negative. The coda of the film is deep in the best possible way – again, it simply shows that the gift was also a curse, and that knowing such a man was both a pleasure and deeply painful. The sun shines, that is its task; it makes visible and does not judge what it illuminates. It is objective – not impartial, or fair, or balanced. It is prior to such categories. “The sun is god” – but it is hard to be a god.