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For Your Consideration: 'Mr. Turner'

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Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, T. Spall
Mike Leigh's latest feature, Mr. Turner, made a run for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival last May, losing out to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. Leigh, known for actor-centered dramas like Secrets and Lies and Another Year, could likely fill that Merchant-Ivory historical film void with pictures like Mr. Turner and the charming Topsy-Turvy from over a decade ago -- movies that take historical artistic figures and, rather than exalting them, bring them down to our level. This process does not degrade them, although I will never look at another Turner or hear Gilbert and Sullivan again quite the same way: it makes them more human. In Leigh's time-proven method, the actors use improvisation to create the dialogue and story, in this case based on extensive historical research. While certainly not history or even documentary, it is more than mere fiction.

Timothy Spall gives a momentous performance as the legendary English painter J. M. W. Turner, for which he was justly recognized at Cannes. Most familiar now, perhaps, from character-actor turns as Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies and in Enchanted, Spall explores the painter's eccentricities and character flaws in an unflinching way: refusing to speak of two daughters he fathered with Sarah Danby (the normally genial Ruth Sheen exploring her shrewish side); sexually abusing his devoted and rather hideous maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson, whom you may recall from Topsy-Turvy); sketching a nude portrait while visiting a young prostitute. As far as the film is concerned, Turner relies on two people for human warmth: his aged father, now his painting assistant, played with likable bonhomie by Paul Jesson, and Mrs. Booth, the woman who rents him a seaside room in the town of Margate on his regular visits to paint seascapes (a homespun and kindly Marion Bailey, who was also in Leigh's Vera Drake). Mrs. Booth was the companion of Turner's old age, and he often stayed with her under the name "Mr. Booth," a way to avoid the notoriety associated with his own name. Turner died in her care, when he was recorded as having uttered his last words, just as shown here, "The sun is god."

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Stunning cinematography (Leigh's regular collaborator, Dick Pope) captures the painterly glory of the places Turner visits on his painting trips. At the opening of the movie, we see Turner looking at a Dutch landscape with a windmill, sketching it in his little book, as was the artist's general way of beginning a painting. At one point there is a view of white cliffs near Margate, perhaps at Joss Bay, that is frozen, highlighted in a way that makes it look like one of Turner's paintings. At another, a transition from Turner violently applying paint to one of his more expressionistic canvases melts into a closeup of a mountainside of green grass and stony blobs of white. You think that the camera is close up on a canvas but it turns out to be real, as Turner is hiking through the mountains to a lake scene (the film was shot on location in England and Wales).

The real-life Turner locations include Petworth House in West Sussex (shown above in the film, a scene based on one of Turner's watercolors), where Turner often visited the Earl of Egremont, who became a major collector of his work. Several charming anecdotes about Turner also turn up, like a famous confrontation with Constable at one exhibit at the Royal Academy. As shown in the still at the top of this post, Turner vexed Constable, whose Opening of Waterloo Bridge was hanging next to one of his seascapes, by placing a blob of red paint on his own finished canvas. A few wipes and scrapes later, and the red blob turns out to be a buoy bobbing in the foreground surf -- as seen in Tate Britain's Helvoetsluys. Constable supposedly huffed out of the exhibit, muttering "He has been in here and fired a gun." Similar scenes show the inspiration of other famous paintings, like The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam, and Speed. The conversation Turner has with Mrs. Booth's second husband, who was a carpenter on ships in the slave trade, is one of the more haunting scenes, not explicitly connected with Turner's Slave Ship but obviously an inspiration.

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L. Costello, J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History
(Ashgate, 2012)
The only real miss in the film is the send-up of art critic John Ruskin, one of Turner's most steadfast defenders, who comes off here as a lisping, effete, bloviating nincompoop (played by Joshua McGuire, who had a similarly dweebish role on The Hour). Ruskin had his faults, to be sure, but to play him as unintelligent, pretentious about art history, and ignorant of how art is made is utterly off-base, smacking more of vengeance against some modern-day critic than anything else. To have a more serious look at the Ruskin-Turner nexus, see Leo Costello's book J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History, especially the chapter on the reception of Turner's Slave Ship, which was influenced largely by Ruskin's description and contextualization of the painting. For example, one of the figures shown drowning in the painting is bare-breasted, clearly female although with her head cut off by the bottom of the canvas, but Ruskin did not identify her as such, a detail that many subsequent viewers missed because Ruskin had.

In one memorable scene, Turner is moved by a woman at Petworth House playing Beethoven on a fortepiano. In his grunting, barely sociable way, he remarks that he enjoys the music of Purcell. The woman plays the aria "When I am laid in earth" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and Spall's Turner sings along in a deep, gruff, and heavily accented voice. Rather than the decidedly modern original score, with its moody saxophone solos (by Gary Yershon, a theater composer who also scored Leigh's Another Year), it is a sonic moment that roots the story in its own time.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.

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