Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

23 September 2014

The J.M.W. Turner Movie

Watching movies with all of the geriatrics of Hanover who have squeezed into the enormous Spaulding Theatre to see these Telluride movies has really started to mess with my head. First everyone loved The Imitation Game, then most people were grossed out or bored by Wild, and two nights ago the audience was openly hostile to Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's film about the British painter J.M.W. Turner. But I was loving it.

I don't want to recommend Mr. Turner to folks, though. It's a tough film. Aren't all of Mike Leigh's films tough? Mr. Turner is tough in a different way than Another Year or Secrets & Lies or Vera Drake, though. Mr. Turner begins by being tough to understand. Like, what are those people actually saying? Turner's father speaks in an intensely thick dialect, and Turner himself (played by Harry Potter's über-creepy villain Timothy Spall) spends the majority of the film literally grunting. It becomes his way of speaking as he gets older, too, so that by film's end he responds to almost anything addressed to him with a pig-like grunt. At the end of the film this is quite amusing, but at the beginning it is frustrating and confusing. Thirty minutes into the movie, though, it all becomes fine, and one hasn't missed anything anyway.

The film is not a standard biopic, beginning when Turner is a young man and following him until his death. Instead, Leigh addresses Turner during his decline. He is an older man, set in his ways, stubborn, messy, disgruntled, hardened by years of neglect by the art establishment. For me this was a fascinating study. The film does not spend time flashing back to when he was young and beautiful and full of life or any such thing. Nor does the film locate the source of Turner's rebellious and outrageous behavior in some childhood trauma (à la Ray, The Imitation Game, Walk the Line). There is no explaining Turner. There is only dealing with him. 

But Mr. Turner is really funny. Leigh moves deftly between social satire that is uproariously funny and then very serious scenes in Turner's private life. Nearly every sequence in the art world is both a beautiful re-enactment of petty nineteenth-century artists' squabbles and a hilarious send-up of the same. There is an absolutely brilliant sequence in which art critic John Ruskin starts a discussion of how to paint the sea. Turner sits in the corner, grunts responses, and then asks the most important artistic question that can be asked: Do you prefer lamb and kidney pie or veal and ham pie?

And there are two genius scenes regarding the future of art. Turner sits in front of a daguerrotype machine and has his picture taken. It's a fascinating sequence about ways of behaving as one is confronted by new technologies. And then there is the future of painting. Turner observes the work of those who would come after him with curiosity, confusion, and (of course) disdain. But Mr. Turner doesn't weep for Turner, and it doesn't treat him as a saint. In many ways he is a grotesquerie, a ridiculous imp in the art world, a disgusting misogynist at home, a tender lover with his partner, a stubborn, difficult artist with his patrons, and a confused, awkward guest at parties.

Leigh's movie intercuts these sequences of private life and the social world of nineteenth-century England with the beautiful sunsets and sunrises Turner is known for painting, as well as images of trains, landscapes, and, of course, the roiling sea. Here, only, do we truly see the world from Turner's point of view. Leigh only allows us access to the artist in this oblique way, by showing us the paintings themselves in a new way. In many ways he gives us brief, cinematic versions of the paintings. Turner sees the world as fast, beautiful, and enormous, and his own position in that world is our position as we look at his paintings: we are so tiny. And the world itself majestically, terrifyingly, bustles right on by us.

I loved this movie.