I enjoyed this film. I was convinced by it from start to finish. I think that Mike Leigh understood the following truth… that much as we would like our famous artists to be prancing about with a paint box producing prettiness very politely, the reality is often very different. That goes for today and it goes for the 18th and 19thcentury too. Artistic creation can be passionate, radical, raw, visceral, in fact arguably the best art is all these things.
Turner was gutsy, driven, he grappled with his subjects, wanted to get as much out of a sky or a seascape as his materials would allow, would not settle for second best. Spit, eggshells, a rub with a dirty finger, all were grist to the mill in trying to achieve his vision. At least that is what I gather from this portrayal.
I was never particularly a fan of Turner’s art, didn’t really understand him, until now. Leigh has made me appreciate the man as a passionate genius, a visionary. As such he was a precursor of the modern non-representational artists, the Tracey Emins who many love to critique and mock for their apparent lack of “talent”.
Turner, Leigh tells us, was an ordinary bloke verging on the uncouth, but who was consumed by his passion to create with watercolour and oils and he didn’t care a damn what people thought. Moreover, he was a man of his time in a world where women were treated as chattels and he, along with many men of the time, treated his women badly. (It is well documented that the great Charles Dickens was guilty of unforgivable cruelty towards his wife, portraying her as insane, so that he could enjoy the company of his mistress unhindered.) That’s how it was. Do we want to ignore this or face it?
But Leigh does not shy away from shocking reality and authenticity. The same honest treatment and wish for authenticity that shows Turner’s animalistic importuning of his landlady up against the bookcase and documents graphically the same poor woman’s worsening psoriasis, also gives us the amazing scenes of the fishing port of Margate, Dutch women strolling along a dyke at dawn, wonderful atmospheric sunsets and the panoramic portrayal of the Fighting Temeraire.
If art is there to help us appreciate the beauty and complexity of our world and film is an art form, which it certainly is, then Mike Leigh has surely succeeded in opening our eyes on the particular world of J.M.W.Turner and his art.
Definitely a star turn for me.