Mike Leigh’s "Mr Turner"…star turn or turn-off?


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.

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3 thoughts on “Mike Leigh’s "Mr Turner"…star turn or turn-off?”

  1. I have a particular love for Turners watercolours and have long been a great fan and tried to find out as much as I can about the man and his watercolour techniques. Unfortunately very little was covered about watercolour except a rather clumsy attempt at tinting some paper with a yellow wash in his studio. Shame.
    I really wouldn't be surprised if Timothy Spall's portrayal of Turner was quite accurate on account of what I've read. I have a particular fascination with that era so enjoyed bathing in the atmosphere provided by the scenery, costumes and language of that time.
    I laughed out loud a few times particularly at his clumsy attempts at intimacy his grunting and the odd cries in the brothel which seemed quite surreal.
    It hasn't changed my mind about his brilliant art but just made me want to know more about the real Mr Turner.

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  2. Hi John, great to read your thoughts on the film. Yes I really relished the atmospheric scenes too. I think I will have to go and see it again or prob. get it on DVD when it's available. Wouldn't it be so good to go back in time and be a fly on the wall and see him paint for real?!

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  3. “Wouldn't it be so good to go back in time and be a fly on the wall and see him paint for real?!” Wouldn't that be something? I was in touch with a watercolour artist Mike Chaplin some time back. He was telling me that he was going to use Turner's actual brushes for the very first time in front of fellow Royal Academicians but I never got to hear how he got on unfortunately. Mike has some watercolour videos on YouTube and I think the nearest we could ever get to see how Turner may have worked would be through Mike's videos who studied his techniques in great depth. Thanks for your interesting blog post.

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