Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five

Crimson Peak – Guillermo del Toro (2015)

All of Guillermo del Toro’s films are, in some way, tales of the gothic. Like his influence (and failed adaptee) H.P. Lovecraft, they are also hybrids, so it is not surprising if the gothic tendency is not the first quality that springs to mind when considering his work. But it is there, running like a subterranean stream through films that feature a kind of art cinema historical realism (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or that seem genre exercises in fantasy (Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) or sci-fi (Mimic, Pacific Rim). In fact, looking at his filmography, it is possible to wonder if all these categories are indeed fused for him – while horror is the overarching category that captures all of his work, most of the films fall into at least two categories. (Blade II, for example, is a horror film, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. Mimic could be considered sci-fi horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is art horror fantasy. And on and on). So what is surprising, given this trajectory, is that Crimson Peak is not a hybrid, and that it is avowedly gothic through and through. Like most of his other films, it is a tale of ghosts, of the dead who refuse to remain dead, and of the vampiric need for the blood of others to guarantee personal survival.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is the story of an escape from a traumatic reality into a fantastical space where, it seems, dreams can come true. In fact, it could almost function as a kind of sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth, as while it lacks that prior film’s grim historical specificity (and outcome), it focuses on a young woman, just on the far side of adolescence, who also seeks to escape a personal tragedy, but instead of forming a closed, safe interior universe, instead ventures outward, both physically and emotionally, leaving her country and falling in love for the first time. Pan’s Labyrinth was a story about the dangers inherent to trusting that the world will support you; Crimson Peak is about the risks of trusting others, after the continuation of the world itself has been assured. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has had a passing encounter with 19th century literature. Our heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring writer of gothic tales and the only daughter of a self-made magnate in 19th century Buffalo, New York. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is visited by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a vaguely aristocratic young Englishman of seemingly decrepit lineage, who tries to interest Cushing père in funding his mud harvesting and brick making scheme. Carter, ever cagey, doesn’t trust Sharpe at first because he is not the up from nothing American type that he can identify with, and then later because of some nasty details learned through the aid of a private detective (the distinctively seedy Burn Gorman). Not thrilled that Sharpe has been making a romantic impression on his daughter, and armed with his evidence of skulduggery, Carter confronts Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and writes them a check to send them on their way, on the condition that Sharpe thoroughly breaks Edith’s heart before leaving. He does so, humiliatingly, at a dinner party, but before they can leave town, someone bashes Carter’s head in. Edith, newly orphaned and without anyone to protect her from the Sharpe siblings except her friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who is too discreet, respectful of Edith’s will (and perhaps hurt at being passed over) to intervene, falls back into Thomas’s arms, and soon is newly married and travelling to his vast manse in the wilds of the English countryside for a new life with he and his sister. Sister Lucille seems strangely jealous of Edith, the house is a monstrous wreck, and haunted to boot. Soon, Edith is wondering what is kept secret in the supposedly too dangerous to visit basement, but before much can be discovered, she inexplicably falls ill. Are the mysterious visitations from bloody women portents of some vile past? Are Edith’s sudden health issues the sign of foul play? (I think you don’t need to read the tea leaves to find that answer). Eventually, all sorts of degenerate yet predictable “secrets” will be revealed, but does Edith make it out alive? Is the love of Thomas true, or will Dr. Alan reemerge and press his case? For the answers, tune in tomorrow… (Or simply imagine, as you are probably right).

Crimson Peak plays out as a kind of cut and paste mashup of the Illustrated Classic’s versions of Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, with a few panels from Great Expectations thrown in for good measure. It is well done, and the attention to period detail, and character filigree, is impressive. And, although the first third of the film, set in Buffalo, is far more interesting than the high gothic doings that comprise most of the rest, and although del Toro’s ghosts look crummy, are not scary, and seem attuned to the worst trends in horror films from the past decade or so, the movie is still affecting and moving in parts, as it does plug us back into what makes the gothic an affective and disturbing form. The acting is good, and helps sell the weaker parts, with Wasikowska being particularly winning and sympathetic (can the gothic exist without a woman at its core?) and her dad Beaver a nuanced standout as well. Beyond that, it is not particularly memorable or powerful. What is fascinating about del Toro as a director is also what is frustrating about him – his films are quite uneven. He’s made a few very good films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), many solid and thought provoking entertainments (Blade II, Cronos, Crimson Peak) and a few semi-stinkers (Mimic, Pacific Rim). He doesn’t tend to write characters with deep or complex psychology, and he rarely surprises with novel techniques or with narrative originality. Just as his imagination is clearly visual first and foremost, it is citational as well; he tends to ransack other films and literature for character types, plot devices, and generic situations. What is surprising, though, is that despite this, each of his films has a distinctive flavor, whether they are art films that we would think more “personal” or genre moneymakers. Despite the hoariness of his material, he is totally sincere; the familiarity of his references feels warm, and comfortable, rather than tired or lazy. Indeed, even though many of his films are “generic” in this way, del Toro takes considerable care to make sure all the details are right and that there is a fidelity to the original within his elaborations. Yes, he tends to focus on the surface, but he is meticulous in his construction, and seems to believe that through detail something larger can emerge. For his faithfulness to the source material to matter, del Toro needs to understand it, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and not just for modern audiences, but for the original ones too – and it is clear that he does. This is why he never winks at the audience, why his references are completely straight, and unironic, as for him (and often for his characters) the imagination is a vehicle that provides an escape into, not just an escape from, and where we are carried is just as important as the fact that we are carried away. Unlike the majority of cynical image makers, who mine the history of representations for shorthand notations in an attempt to convey emotions and meanings that they are too limited to create, del Toro is instead recalling – his cinema is a cinema of memory, but the subject is his own memory, the child-like delight evident in the beauty and directness of his imaginings a window to what he finds important morally and emotionally. del Toro is an anachronism in the sense that he reminds one of those journeyman directors of yore, toiling within the studio system, who turned out uneven product and inconsistent art, and who never rose to the rank of household name or avatar of “greatness,” but who nonetheless, in their ubiquity, in their striving, in their simple desire to work and solve problems of visual communication, helped build the grammar of the visual language we speak with today, and by the by constructed a palace of dreams vast and rich enough to escape into, perhaps, like del Toro, forever. Crimson Peak does not do anything new, nor does it overly impress us in any particular way, but at the same time, it helps us remember the stories we thought we had forgotten. Even if this remembering does not linger far beyond the end credits, in the time of our transport it reminds us that we are haunted by the ghosts of past representations for a reason. The ghosts are important, as when we are haunted, we are, like Edith, learning how to navigate the world of humans by remembering those who came before. And, also like Edith, such remembering ultimately allows us to survive, able to become the author of the story of our own lives.

Three stars out of five

Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

What does it mean to be a man? Maybe it means whatever the society one is born into says it means – gender is a cultural construction, and so being a man means acting in certain ways, taking up the proper attires, attitudes, and preconceptions of the age into which one is born, and wearing them so that, in the eyes of others, they fit. If one wanted to be blunter, or more essentialist, one might say that being a man simply means having some native power, and making use of it. For a large part of history, at least in the West, woman has been defined negatively, as the absence of such powers (enumerated as characteristics). To put a finer point on it, being a man means being the nexus of potential powers of which women are deprived: political, economic, legal, religious. Power, though, is a flow (thanks, Foucault), running in both directions, and one can argue, as one should, that women have always had power, and wielded it, if in ways discursive and liminal. (They were forced to be men through means other than biology). So let me be even more specific. Being a man has less to do, perhaps, with power than with desire. Men are those beings who, by dint of a position of privilege vis-a-vis power, are allowed to desire. Yes, there are better or worse desires, and yes, there are desires which may be forbidden, or at least heavily taxed by the social order, to keep the social corpus from disintegrating, but a man gets to espouse his desire. Which is another way of saying that man is that creature that has a right to self-creation, or self-definition, and when he exercises that right, for good or for ill, in a way sanctioned or not, nobody is surprised; indeed, everything is as it should be, as such a thing is “natural.” (Nature being that which hides in plain sight). But desire is also, and notoriously, unseemly. To want something else, even in the crudest form of seizure and hording, grabbing a hold and not letting go of “the goods,” admits a deficiency. To want is inherently feminine, as it admits to a preexisting lack, a need, a weakness. When the object of desire is something petty, money, or property, perhaps, the desirous individual may also be deemed petty, but at the same time, there is less danger to his propriety; when the object of desire is another person, however, the chasm can open quickly, and swallow up the individual, unmasking, for society and for the man, the charade on which power as essential manliness is founded. If to be a woman is to be not-man, then to be a man in the thrall of desire for a woman is to be… nothing. (Or rather, at the center of a vertiginous spiral. Hence Lacan et al). “Love” is what we call such a crossroads, the place of no place where bets are set, cards are revealed, and reality eventually steps unclad from its social proscriptions. In this way, love is the domain of woman, as it is the space of vulnerability, risk, and seeking an identity through relations rather than assertions. But all identity is relational, and we arrive at the realization that nobody knows what it means to be a man – all those norms, all that “power,” is indeed simply an empty signifier, and the social trappings of manliness an almost endlessly elaborated denial of a negation (man is the neuter, and is defined negatively against the reality of woman). Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, following in the hewn path of the material it is adapted from, asks what it means to be a man, what it means to desire, and what it means to love, and it does so by portraying a woman who desires to be a man while retaining her femininity.

The film concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman just starting out on a path of self-sufficiency. The opening is dream-like in the isolation of its characters; Bathsheba has just acquired a small farm near the property of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He is a sheep farmer, and has put himself into hock in an attempt to better his condition and make a way for himself. For the first quarter hour or so, these two are the only inhabitants of a lush primeval world. After knowing her for a seemingly short period of time, Gabriel proposes marriage – the act speaks less of presumption than it does of inexperience, and indeed it feels somewhat natural, given that we feel these two are a kind of natural pair, mirrored both in their isolation, and in their hard-scrabble natures, each possessing nothing besides education (hers learned, his lived). Bathsheba doesn’t exactly refuse, but she lets Gabriel know that she doesn’t want a husband; she, being a kind of mirror of him (or he her) is also looking to rise, or, at least, test herself against the world (a double test, as she doesn’t have the same social warrant he does). Before any of this can play out further, fate, in good Victorian fashion, intervenes, and Gabriel’s farm meets with disaster. He is forced to sell everything he has to cover his debts, and he sets out to rebuild his life by selling his labor. At the same time as he is brought low, she is lifted up – her uncle dies, leaving her the sole heir to his farm estate, and she steps into his shoes, vowing to make use of the opportunity destiny has provided to “astonish” everyone and prove herself the equal of a man. Gabriel, after a short period of wandering, happens onto her land, assists during an emergency (his metier), and is hired by her as shepherd, showing he is indeed her equal by remaining unperturbed at their reversal of fortune, and unashamed to be in the employ of a woman he once courted. Bathsheba works hard and makes use of her considerable mental and social abilities to make the farm a success, and in doing so, attracts the attention of the local most eligible bachelor, a successful and wealthy farmer named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). We sense he is constrained by social strictures in that, during early encounters, he steers clear of this powerful woman, paying her deference, but also treating her with some coldness. She responds by sending him, by way of sussing out his nature, a Valentine, and this causes him to warm to her considerably, although not in the way she might like. He proposes marriage, and she, not wanting to hurt him (feeling guilty that she has led him on with the Valentine), doesn’t say no; she asks for time to think. He takes this as having greater import than it does. All the while, Gabriel serves as her foil. At times, he is a protege (although really he is more experienced at farm work than she), at times, a confidant, her conscience, her master-at-arms. That is, they become, slowly, closer and greater friends, although the relationship of employee and master always takes precedence. While Bathsheba runs the farm, keeping both men on the slow burn, a new force emerges to be reckoned with: one Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a Sergeant in the Army who seemingly happens upon Bathsheba while trespassing her property one night. He stays on to work, she tries to dismiss him, given his rank in society, and he, stereotypically dashing and romantic, susses out she has not had any adventures in the realm of love (indeed, she’s never been kissed), and proceeds to give her some. She is momentarily swept off her feet, and after trysting with him in the city, the two return wed, to the consternation of most everyone (except the farmhands he proceeds to get drunk). She immediately sees that the match was rash and unwise, and the rest of the film is a working out of this triangle: Troy, the callous mistake who now has a purchase on her material wealth; Boldwood, the stable, sturdy, but overly traditional and older bachelor who could make her “problems” go away, but at the cost of her self-definition; and Oak, her twinned other, the match both recognize is “meant to be,” but who will not make a move on her for the same reasons she won’t on him.

I am far from a well-read individual when it comes to Thomas Hardy (I have not read the book this film is based on), but one thing I love about him is that his characters both fit into types and at the same time subvert them (or exceed them). So, it is not a surprise that while the woman in this film takes on the characteristics of a man of her era, so do the men contain aspects of the feminine that, in the end, marks this drama as a dance of full humans trying to work against circumstances that would reduce them. For instance, Boldwood is indeed a traditionalist, and his vision of a marriage with Bathsheba would be very much one of him providing for while possessing her, even as he understands this is not her nature (and would make her unhappy). At the same time, he is in most ways the woman in their relationship. We understand that his aloof nature early on is the result of being jilted by a past love, and of a resulting lack of confidence. He is shy, and thus Bathsheba, in taking the reigns and sending him the Valentine, fits into what he might hope (and fear), even as it works against what society expects of him. For her part, she regrets playing “the man,” and effectively mocking his past hurt, but instead of keeping in the role, breaking his heart (by giving him a firm no) and moving on, she gives him hope. And indeed, she does seem undecided; she is not fickle, but is trying to negotiate what she desires with what society expects, and is leaving open the space of possibility that society might be right (or at least might win out). In this sense, she, like a man, wants to have options. Unfortunately, this leads Boldwood to grow only more attached, and to love her, unrequitedly, not from afar, but from just next door. Troy is similarly a mix, but in the opposite sense. On the surface, he is the usual rogue/dastard/adventurer we expect, knee-jerk, from a young, good-looking, and callow Army officer of this period. He is a gambler, a drinker, and we learn that he sees in Bathsheba a source of funding (although this is not his only motivation). At the same time, his romanticism is not a ruse; he is the only male in the film who openly cries, and without shame. While he treats Bathsheba poorly, we know he can be decent, honorable, and, above all, steadfastly loyal, as we have knowledge of a prior relationship, a doomed love with a wasteling of low birth named Fanny (Juno Temple). He is part cad, part Byronic hero, and part heartbroken idealist. While he is the husband, and thus lord of the estate, Bathsheba remains the “man” in that she is the effective, level-headed, scrupulous and industrious striver, while he is a layabout. Oak, while seemingly the most straightforward of the characters, is indeed the most complicated, as he is somewhat protean. Early on, he has the chance of joining the Army (he is called out by the recruiter as an exceptional specimen), and could have given up farming to become “like” Troy (in stature, at least). He is also a striver, trustworthy, conscientious, and sober-minded, and we can picture him easily turning into a Boldwood (who courts him as a manager of his property, and as a confidant and friend). The difference, though, is that, like Bathsheba, he is not content to play along with social expectations – or rather, he sees beyond them, to something truer, deeper, and more permanent. Unlike his male counterparts, he is not tormented or vexed, even though he has a much tougher existence, materially, than they. He is comfortable being feminized, as he has been granted the “gift” of maleness by birth; he is confident, comfortable in his own skin, and strong because of this existential stance. Bathsheba is his twin in all but this way – she has had to earn her access to “manliness,” nothing she achieves is a given, or granted, so she lacks the ability to see through or beyond the masks of the other men. Well, this is not exactly fair – for her, the stakes are too high. One wrong move might finish her, whereas Oak is always already allowed to reinvent himself, to move on, and to rework his life again, to the best of his abilities. In the end, it is this similarity – the ability to see beyond the dictates of the age, and to realize the absurdity of the expectations placed upon them – that marks Gabriel and Bathsheba as a natural match. One of the reasons I love Hardy, and what makes him interesting, is that, for all his similar farsightedness, he ultimately posits that humans do have natural affinities, based on type and temperament. Like should go with like. Troy’s natural match is Fanny, Oak’s is Bathsheba. The real tragedy is that, for Boldwood, his natural match never materializes and so he, in a sense, martyrs himself so that Bathsheba will be free to make hers.

The film ultimately suggests that we are types and we are mixtures; we are male and female, and personality emerges in the struggle we each conduct, psychically and within, between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Vinterberg has not made a radical film by any means, but it is an impressive one in its astute observations of human nature. Like his equally impressive The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd seeks to investigate how identity is formed by social consensus, how identity feeds back into, and informs social consensus, and how the damage and pain that emerges from this process reveals truth. It is a truth without an answer, though, and thus it, like most of reality, lacks catharsis. This is not a criticism, as it marks the film as mature (and as art) in my mind. All the same, it explains why we feel strangely subdued at our happy ending. Like goes with like, and what we knew all along is reinforced – that Gabriel and Bathsheba, as best friends and partners, are meant to be. But there is also the nagging sense that we’d have preferred them to have been married at the first, back when they were still isolated, truly equal in their nascence. While their experiences make it more likely that this relationship will endure, compared to the unrealized one, all the same, there is something more remote and distanced about them now. They know the many ways life can go, and go wrong, as they have borne witness to it together; ultimate disaster is no longer out there somewhere, a lurking unknown. But cataclysm is a quickener, and perhaps it would have been better to have lived, together, without knowledge of any other way, in fear of loss and catastrophe, than to know that, come what may, one can always go on, and make a way, alone.

Four stars out of five

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh (2014)

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.

Four stars out of five