Oscar special: Flawed but beautiful, Mr Turner deserved acting nominations

Deepanjana Pal

February 10, 2015 14:53:03 IST

They called him "the painter of light" because of how he captured fragile radiance, particularly of sunsets and sunrises, on canvas. Looking at his works, you can almost hear the roar of the surf, feel the dampness of an incoming storm, imagine the delicate warmth of the light that made the sky and sea look bejewelled. Yet all this delicate sophistication came from a man who had been described as "uncouth". One contemporary said of him, "The man must be loved for his works; for his person is not striking nor his conversation brilliant."

Joseph Mallord William Turner is one of the greats of British art and more than 150 years after his death, Britain hasn't forgotten him. In 2005, a public poll in Britain voted Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" to be the country's "greatest painting". No wonder then that director Mike Leigh figures he doesn't really need to bother with much of either a background or narrative in his biopic, Mr Turner.

Courtesy: Facebook

Courtesy: Facebook

Starring Timothy Spall as Turner, Leigh's new film is about the latter half of the artist's life. While Leigh and some of Britain may not need a background, we in India certainly need more background than Leigh provides in Mr Turner.

The film doesn't look at Turner's early years, when he rapidly climbed social ladders simply because he was too brilliant an artist to ignore. By the time Mr Turner opens, the artist is well known as a master landscape artist and is shifting away from the precise realism that was en vogue at the time and towards a more Impressionistic style. Unimpressed by the posh set, Turner sought out beauty and brilliant minds, regardless of where they were in the social pyramid. Leigh tries to hint at this through a scene in which Mrs Mary Somerville, a pioneering Scottish polymath and science writer, visits Turner.

What Mr Turner showcases exquisitely and without the requirement of footnotes is the communion between nature and Turner. Dick Pope's cinematography not only captures the drama and colours of the landscape, but at times, it's difficult to tell if it's reality or a detail from a painting until the camera pulls back to reveal the panorama. No wonder Pope has been nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA for his work. The film's design department has also won nominations from both the American and Britism film academies for its wonderful recreation of 19th century England. It's a shame that Mr Turner didn't score any acting nominations because the cast, particularly Spall, performs brilliantly.

Turner's modernism wasn't limited to his art, as it turns out. Fiercely guarded about his private life, few knew much about Turner beyond the fact that he was a barber's son. He clung to this un-posh background fiercely, never losing the strong Cockney accent that even his students found difficult to follow. (So feel no shame in turning to subtitles to understand what the hell Spall is saying in Leigh's film. Also, be warned: while on occasion what sounds like a grunt from Spall is actually a word, frequently the grunts are just grunts.)

What Turner didn't reveal to many was that he had fathered two daughters with a woman he hadn't married. He also had a relationship of sorts with his maid Hannah - played brilliantly by Dorothy Atkinson - who some believe may have given birth to the daughters though Leigh follows the more established theory of Hannah being nothing more than Turner's squeeze, somewhat literally. Later in life, Turner lived in sin with yet another woman. And all this in Victorian England, from a man who was not, by any account, easy on the eye.

The problem with Mr Turner is that none of the drama inherent in Turner's life really comes through in Leigh's film. Despite its beauty and the impressive research Leigh has done into the era and Turner's personal life, the film quickly feels dull. The story feels like a random assortment of scenes rather than a proper narrative, and the audience has to work hard to connect the dots. For example, at one point, there's a passing reference to Turner's mother and a vague hint that she was wronged. This revelation comes at a dramatic moment, when Turner's beloved father is on his deathbed. Yet the film moves on and ignores the dying man's confession, which is perplexing for an audience. (FYI, Turner's mother was committed to an insane asylum, where she eventually died. What impact this had on Turner, either in real life or in Leigh's film, is not known.)

For Mr Turner to make sense and feel coherent, the audience needs to know almost as much as Leigh does about the artist. If you've seen Turner's paintings (or reproductions of them), then you'll appreciate how glorious the cinematography is and which of Turner's works are being referenced in the shots. Otherwise, they're beautiful scenes, but a tad self-indulgent. If you know the detailing and realism that was privileged by historical painting, then you'll marvel at how prescient Turner was to recognise that with the invention of the camera - a contraption that could bring the faraway Niagara Falls to a London suburb - paintings needed to capture sensation rather than act as a record.

Mr Turner isn't necessarily the best introduction to either Turner or Leigh's considerable talents, but it is in many parts a beautiful looking film and Spall's outstanding portrayal of this prickly artist deserves thunderous applause. Have patience with Mr Turner and Spall, despite his grunting and snorting, will eventually soften your heart towards this difficult, brilliant man.

Updated Date: Feb 10, 2015 15:54 PM