Sunday, February 08, 2015
It seems fitting to describe the film Mr. Turner as a portrait of the artist. No real action, plot, or dramatic arc is found here, but rather a visualization of the life and character of the early 19th century artist. Watching his interactions with his father, his maid, his daughters and their mother, his mistress, his peers, and his patrons, we get a good sense of this very interesting character who was often curmudgeonly, but also often gentlemanly, and sometimes generous. Timothy Spall does a superb job of capturing this complex and often taciturn man. We get a good sense of his place in society at the time, prominent though also with a few detractors as his style became more abstract later in life. Visually, director Mike Leigh does a terrific job of conveying the grittiness of the times (even the well-off in England in the 1840s lived a rather dirty existence by today's standards), and also conveying the beauty that Turner saw in it. There are some extraordinary scenes which are completely painterly, capturing the natural light of clouds and sky in such a way that it looks like a painting. And sometimes these scenes fade into or out of a painting. The opening scene, of a Dutch windmill, river, and sky, with two nuns walking along the river, looks completely like a painting, except that the nuns are slowly moving, and as the camera pans back, we see the silhouette of the artist sketching the scene, memorizing the light. In another scene, the artist has himself lashed to the mast of a ship so that he can see what light looks like in a stormy sea (and practically gives himself pneumonia in the process). While the film was bit draggy at times (it was nearly 3 hours after all), I did mostly enjoy it. I am not often a fan of plotless films, but I was engaged by this portrait, and found my thoughts returning to it later in the week.