Portrait of the Artist as a Bulldog

Mr. Turner. A film by Mike Leigh.

There’s a lot not to like in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the British artist J.M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall). The man is often gruff and uncommunicative. He is especially so with his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who obviously worships him and would do anything for him, including some weird sexual favors. The woman herself is in ill health with a dreadful skin condition, and Leigh doesn’t hide such things; this isn’t “Downton Abbey,” and he airbrushes nothing. The movie doesn’t have a plot, starts in roughly the middle of the artist’s life and rumbles along until his death. Artists are presented as a rude weird vain lot, and the one critic who shows up—the great John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire)—is a moronic fop. What a crew.

But I loved the movie. My favorite period in British literature is the 18th century, before Victorian prudery had sanitized things (a young Queen Victoria makes a brief cameo in this film, actually), and that’s the method of this movie; when Turner visits a brothel, the prostitute is listless and uninterested, and he doesn’t have some marvelous sexual encounter (he saves that for Ms. Danby), but asks her to strike various poses, winds up bawling in a humiliating way, grieving for his father, who had recently died. On a visit to the Ruskins, he encounters a weird gelatinous dessert that he doesn’t know whether to stick it up his nose or throw across the room. He sees himself mocked in a kind of Punch and Judy show, evesdrops as Queen Victoria gives her opinion that he has fallen way off from his earlier work. The man is spared no humiliation.

But Sprall portrays him not as a sensitive suffering artist but a meat and potatoes guy who just wanted to get on with the work, didn’t sit around emoting (like his contemporary Benjamin Haydon, played hilariously by Martin Savage) but got the canvas and mixed the paints, saw that the light was right. He was as obsessed with his work as anyone, is portrayed as lashing himself to a mast during a snow storm so he could experience the storms at sea that he specialized in (and soon coming down with a bad case of bronchitis). Turner apparently had a couple of daughters whom he neglected all their lives, neglected their mother as well (when these women visit his studio, apparently looking for some help in their straitened circumstances, he doesn’t offer much, but practically breaks his knuckles, he’s wringing his hands with such fury). We’re not told why he wants nothing to do with these progeny, though the mother is a real harridan. He in any case wasn’t Father of the Year material.

Turner apparently found romantic and sexual happiness late in life with a woman with whom he lodged in order to paint his seascapes; she was a lovely woman (played here by Marion Bailey) and seemed to love and understand him. He referred to himself when he was with her as Mr. Booth, in the same way that he gave her a false name when he first took the room. Though obsessed with his art, and not necessarily modest, he didn’t seem to seek out acclaim, turned down a huge offer to buy his collected works because he wanted to leave them to the British people.

Artists in general in this film are presented as a vain, contentious, envious lot, practically coming to blows over their placement in an exhibit. I’ve known artists of various kinds during my years as a writer, and they’ve generally been self-deprecating and modest, but I know this is how they really feel. When we walked into a bookstore in the old days, my son would shamelessly put my books in a more prominent position than what the proprietors had chosen. I wouldn’t have done that myself (at least not if anyone was watching), but I didn’t change them back, nor did I reprimand the young man.

I haven’t mentioned the most excellent aspect of the movie, Dick Pope’s marvelous cinematography. Every single shot in this movie is like a painting itself, a masterpiece, even when the scene itself is ugly. The film was an enormous pleasure to watch.

I had my usual problems with British accents (I do think subtitles would be appropriate for an American audience), and missed long stretches of dialogue. I actually thought that on his deathbed Turner’s last words were, “The sun is gone,” but what he apparently said was, “The sun is God.” It certainly seemed to be his inspiration. Every studio he worked in had marvelous light.

My wife thought the movie went on a little long, but I was enraptured until the end. If you want a great novel about an obsessed artist read The Horse’s Mouth (also a great—and unusual—portrait of a saint) but if you want to see a movie on that subject, you could do a lot worse than “Mr. Turner.”