Through the beneficence of good friends, we finally caught up with the movie Mr. Turner (2014), a biopic chronicling the renowned English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), written and directed by one of our favorite directors, Mike Leigh, who is also responsible for one of my “Top Ten” (possibly even “Top Five”) favorite movies of all time, Topsy-Turvy. (That was lot of information for one sentence, wasn’t it? Take a breath for a second. You’ve earned it.)
Our friends invited us to dinner, and then a screening of the DVD. Since Mr. Turner is two-and-a-half-hours long and it was already past seven, a bet was proposed concerning which of us, all seventy or older, would fall asleep first. The room was dark, so we’d be working on the “Honor System.” Though everyone insisted at the end that they had remained awake, I could have sworn I heard snoring.
Mike Leigh has a unique (and fortunate) method of working involving the cast’s participation in months of research and improvisation, from whose painstaking efforts the movie’s final screenplay is ultimately developed. Most movies do not even rehearse; they just show up and start shooting. Why? Because it costs money to do what Leigh requires. It appears Leigh has the supportive benefactors (and cooperative actors) to pull it off.
The result of Leigh’s process is a richer and deeper presentation, a movie that is less an escalating plotline than a quilt. (Which is especially helpful if the theater you are watching it in is chilly.) What you end up with is a cinematic collage or a completed jigsaw puzzle, which, for me, is more satisfying than a movie connecting the narrative dots in a familiar and therefore predicable arrangement.
So there’s all that. Now about the movie.
What I have read about Mike Leigh indicates that he is uncompromising and demanding. And a curmudgeonly sourpuss. At least that’s how he came off in the interviews I’ve encountered. Who knows? He could be a delight in private. Like they say about Hillary Clinton.
Consistent with his character, though possibly unconsciously, Mike Leigh has chosen as his movie’s subject a curmudgeonly sourpuss painter. Which can be a risky proposition due to a possibly debilitating “‘curmudgeonly’ squared.”
On the other hand, maybe we’re lucky. Based on “It takes one to know one”, Leigh is precisely the right man for the job. A sweetheart filmmaker might have injected some inappropriate softening. In the name of “accessible entertainment.” Or “Life’s too short to be immersed for an entire shooting schedule in such unmitigated unpleasantness.” Or just the rationalizing, “Everyone’s nice sometimes.”
Not this time. This time it’s “All in.” Raising the first question: “You center a commercial enterprise on an unlikable character, are you courageous, or are you an idiot?” (The film’s grosses at least in America suggest the answer would be, “Idiot.” Americans prefer meanies with marshmallow hearts. I mean, this guy denied the paternity of his daughters, and he randomly assaulted his housekeeper. Though she did seem to appreciate the attention.)
Timothy Spall, a Mike Leigh ensemble “regular” is a talented actor with the face of a warthog. Onto that feral visage, for this role, Spall has grafted the perpetual scowl of a person who… you know that riddle, “What’s worse than an apple with a worm in it?” – “Half an apple with half a worm in it”? In his portrayal of Turner, Spall seems to have unfortunately consumed that half an apple.
Spall additionally adopts, throughout the movie, in his response to difficult moments, an subvocal, adenoidal rumble. I can imagine Spall racing in during the extended rehearsal period, proclaiming that he had, working at home, discovered his character’s signature “sound.” And, after listening to it, the director deciding, “We’ll leave it in.” Which was done, on thirty or forty occasions, to the point where some, I am sure, began thinking, “I believe they fell overly in love with the ‘rumble.’”
I personally am a sucker for the entire spectrum of movies about creative people, ranging from Bob Fosse’s unforgettable All That Jazz to Anthony Newley’s deliciously terrible Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? I’m an artist (so to speak); they’re an artist. So I intrinsically get what they’re going for.
Mr. Turner covers all the bases, its loosely-tied vignettes exploring the significant concerns. How does a terrible person produce enduring art? Or, turned the other way, is it possible for a decent person produce enduring art? And by the way, though no less importantly, does the effort to produce art make it impossible to enjoy a reasonably normal life? Which includes being a decent person.
What does it take to become artistically successful? Do you have to be exceptionally gifted? Or just the public likes what you do, be you exceptionally gifted or not? And while we’re at it, who exactly dtermines these things? (A lot of contemporary critics appreciated Turner. The Royal Family of the period did not, labeling one of his paintings “A yellow mess.”)
What happens if you change or try to grow as an artist? Will your appreciators go along with your experiments, or will they disloyally turn away? And should the artist ever concern themselves about that?
There is also a failed artist character in the movie who is continually in debt. The man is unilaterally abrasive. Raising the question: Did he fail because he was a substandard artist, or because he was a bust at public relations?
And of course, there’s the perennial favorite:
“What do you do when they don’t want you anymore?
Mr. Turner made me think about an artist’s motivations, about the genesis of their abilities, about their sacrifice. It made me think about commercialism versus personal integrity. (Turner, we are told, turned down an enormous amount from a fabulously wealthy pen nib manufacturer because his pictures, once procured, would never be publicly displayed.) And always, always, “What makes one guy better than another guy, and what exactly does ‘better’ mean?”
Mr. Turner made me want to see Turner’s actual pictures. (Available locally at the Getty.) I wondered if they used the actual “Turners” in the movie, or did they instead employ knockoff “Terners.” (The movie itself is beautiful to behold, virtually every shot a framable picture of its own.)
Care. And love. And time. And professionalism.
All to be seen in Mr. Turner.
Though it is still hard to appreciate the guy.