Mr. Turner, part 1

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s latest film, tempts one to use ‘sublime’ as a definition, a term often associated with Turner’s painting. I admit I was skeptical about the film, even after reading A. O. Scott’s poem of a review. Turner usually bores me, and walking through the endless Tate Britain rooms hung with similarly looking pictures of his was never a gratifying experience – I was usually running away from Turner, towards Constable.

But the main reason for my skepticism is that I dread biopics. They have become something of a dominant sub-genre in contemporary culture. This year alone, four out of the total of eight pictures nominated for an academy award, are biopics: American Sniper (perhaps less conventionally so), The Imitation Game on Alan Turing, Selma on Martin Luther King, and The Theory of Everything on Stephen Hawking. The problem with biography, in cinema and elsewhere, is double-sided. First, it’s a problem of form that derives from locating the individual at the center of a narrative exposition that is self-justifying: the fact that an entire film is dedicated to him (less often her) tautologically proves the subject’s value, as if interesting actions, ideas and works signify that the life of the person that produced them must be interesting as well. Biographical films then tend to follow a linear development to an inevitable conclusion: triumph and/or death, usually in the most unimaginative, conventional way possible. Gandhi, the person, was remarkable. Gandhi, the film, was not. The rare exception, such as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, or Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, are films that try to visually capture something of the distinctiveness of their subject matter – rendered perhaps easier in these cases, as both Ed Wood and Caravaggio worked with visual means in the first place.

The second problem is one of content, as well as ideology. Biographies represent a view of the world, whereby the individual is the unquestionable protagonist not only of his/her history, but of history in general. The recent proliferation of biopics echoes Thomas Carlyle’s view in the nineteenth century that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”. At the same time, the biopic has become the – realistic, yet paradoxical – inverse of the other dominant trend of popular culture: the super-hero film. Both super-heroes and real-life ones have crowded our screens, often with little aesthetic pleasure, insight or knowledge derived. What’s more, the individualism, and exceptionalism, propounded by both sub-genres leaves a sour aftertaste when compared to a social reality where values relevant to social cohesion and collectivity crumble and recede, in favor of a rampant global, every-man-for-himself type of capitalism.

Source of image:

Mr. Turner is an entirely different animal. Although Mike Leigh has apparently paid the same meticulous attention to the reconstruction of nineteenth-century life before (in Topsy-Turvy, a film I unfortunately have not seen), it is not so much the historical accuracy of the representation or the undisputed qualities of Dick Pope’s cinematography, that are the principal merits of this film. The film’s greatest affinity lies not with another film, but with an exhibition: the 2009 Turner and the Masters, curated by the formidable David Solkin. Solkin’s avowed intention when he came up with the idea of the exhibition was not to take Turner down a peg, an effect produced by hanging Turner next to Watteau or Rembrandt, as some more traditionally-minded art critics thought. Solkin rather sought to revise the traditional notion of the painter as a sort of modern painter avant la lettre, who had prefigured the Impressionists, and by doing so, to upset the linear narratives that have plagued the discipline of art history for so long. Some unintended effects resulted (such as grading Turner against his “competitors”).

The exhibition – the best I have ever seen – was marvelously inventive, placing Turner directly in comparison with the peers and contemporaries he vied against for professional success and recognition, as well as with the old masters that he tried to match or surpass (ranging from Claude Lorrain to Willem van de Velde). Among other things, the exhibition boldly included one of Turner’s most unpopular paintings, and recreated a famous incident between Turner and Constable, that demonstrates not only their different temperaments but also the difference in their working methods. The incident plays a central part in the film as well, and to it I shall return.

Much like the exhibition, that stressed Turner’s competitive nature and desire for professional and financial success, thus grounding the painter’s masterpieces in history, Leigh takes a scalpel (not an axe) to the myth of the great artist, testing the audience’s ingrained beliefs on what a great artist might be and how great art is produced. There is nothing heroic, nor even remotely romantic, about Mr. Turner. Not even when he gets tied to the mast of a ship, like another Ulysses, to gleefully observe the elements of nature at work during a sea-storm. I was initially perplexed by the film’s mundane title, but it perfectly encapsulates its philosophy: Mr. Turner is just another human being, exceptional in unexceptional ways. Earthly, selfish, vain, obsessed with his work, occasionally touched by art (as when he mutters the words of Dido’s lament, with his patron’s daughter accompanying him in the piano), lover of nature, example of filial devotion. He was at the same time unceremonious about his opinions and careless when it came to other people’s feelings (even cruel to his supposed two daughters, born out of wedlock).

Mike Leigh’s interest and experience in the representation of middle class and lower middle class lives has served him particularly well here. The director does not dare his audience to like Mr. Turner despite his atrocious, at times, behavior; liking Mr. Turner is not what this film is about. I’d say it’s hardly about appreciating Turner’s art, or giving us a glimpse to the master’s inner workings, something that would explain how one gets from point A (one’s character) to point B (one’s work). As A. O. Scott beautifully wrote, “by the end, we may not be able to summarize Turner’s life, explain his paintings or pass a midterm on British history. But we may find that our knowledge of all those things has deepened, and the compass by which we measure our own experience has grown wider. Only art can do that, and it may be all that art can do”. (to be continued)