Mr Turner

This is usually a book blog but today I am making an exception and writing about a film instead. Fear not: the film in question is a biopic, and this review will address many of the questions which are pertinent to life-writing too. If you haven’t yet seen Mr Turner I heartily recommend that you do, or at the very least watch this little snippet to get your eye in:

Mr Turner: an unassuming title for a film with the difficult task of portraying a man of deep and sometimes troubling contradictions. As someone with only a lay(wo)man’s knowledge of art history, I cannot add anything new to the debates about whether or not the recently released film is historically accurate – however, what I do know is that Turner was a controversial figure in his own time and almost universally adored today: this film was always going to have to tread carefully around the approbation of his aficionados.

Although some people have found this portrayal of greatness almost sacrilegious in its failure to present a sanitised, attractive Turner, someone worthy of their worship, I loved this warts and all representation of a great artist’s life. The sex scenes are unsexy, as sex often is. The relationships are complex – how can a man so passionately devoted to and understood by his father be so cruelly indifferent to his own children? – but then show me a relationship which isn’t. Death is preceded by ill-health, men die unglamorously: this is the stuff of real lives. Grunting, overweight, roughly accented, sometimes unloving, sometimes in love, friendly and contrary in equal measure: Timothy Spall’s Turner is the roughest and most brilliant of diamonds; intensely human – but a rare and gifted one, absorbed by art and lift and the mysteries of the universe.

What I admired most about this film is that it resists the temptation to give a falsely uplifting or climatic narrative to Turner’s life. It would have been so easy to deliver a ‘feel-good’ or ‘rags-to-riches’ film – and Turner’s life story could be said to fit within those plot arcs (he was the son of a London barber who became the nation’s best-loved artist), but Mike Leigh neatly sidesteps these artistic cul-de-sacs: he expertly mingles the cheeky joy of Happy Go Lucky with darker moments more akin to Vera Drake and gives us neither a happy ending nor a sad one. Very rarely do even (or especially?) famous people’s lives take a graceful parabola of success, their last years suffused with the halcyon glow of glory. More often, their fortunes wax and wane, family members arrive and depart their world, old age and ill-health dog their final years.

The film’s physical intimations of mortality (pace Wordsworth) are grotesque, startlingly visceral: almost Dickensian in their red-bloodedness. But I love it all the more for this: that someone so remarkable as Turner would have been anything other than intense and full-bodied in the way he lived his life seems unthinkable.

The other trap that this film avoids is the classic ‘fallen hero’ slide into poverty, ignominy or pathos which often accompany the portrayal of aging. Turner’s life could have been viewed in these terms too, as he became a Royal Academician at the youngest age permissible (24) yet became ever more secretive and eccentric in his personal life as the years passed. Marion Bailey’s Sophia Booth, Turner’s final lover at whose house he breathes his last, brings terrific warmth in the way she shows that the love affairs of old age can be just as fun and loving as those of younger folk. Turner’s intrinsic character remains steadfast throughout: he is recognisably the same man at 60 that he was at 40, self-possessed, driven, earthy, and true to his own world view. Just as the film doesn’t follow glory with glory, neither does despair follow relentless despair as death approaches.

I also loved the film for its attempt to show on screen that most elusive and deeply personal thing, the creative process. Bright Star, one of my favourite films, does this superbly; even the less-than-great Pandemonium makes a valiant stab. Mr Turner is similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring in the way it recreates particular pictures: The Fighting Temeraire is the most obvious one, but I get the feeling that several of the beautiful still shots (like the one which opens the film – see pictures below) are attempt to show how Turner was inspired to create works which are less well-known.

Fighting Termeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Termeraire: film still from Mr Turner

Fighting Temeraire: film still from Mr Turner

These stills are beautiful – I just wish I knew more about Turner’s paintings to be able to recognise them on sight. Still, no time like the present to better acquaint myself with his work, as this fabulous exhibition is on in London until 25 January…