Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mr. Turner, by Mike Leigh.

Mr. Turner is a 2014 British biographical drama film, written and directed by Mike Leigh, and starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Lesley Manville, and Martin Savage. The film concerns the life and career of British artist J. M. W. Turner (played by Spall). It premiered in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Spall won the award for Best Actor and cinematographer Dick Pope received a special jury prize for the film's cinematography.
Leigh has described Turner as "a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter," explaining, "I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world."

A look at the last quarter century of the great British painter J. M. W. Turner. Profoundly affected by the death of his esteemed father, loved by his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, whom he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies.

Throughout all this, Turner travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty.

Mr. Turner had its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d'Or, with Timothy Spall winning the Best Actor award and cinematographer Dick Pope winning the Vulcan Award. Entertainment One are scheduled to release the film in the United Kingdom on 31 October 2014. Sony Pictures Classics will handle the United States distribution, with a scheduled release date of 19 December 2014. It is scheduled to be screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by     Mike Leigh
Produced by   Georgina Lowe
Written by      Mike Leigh
Starring           Timothy Spall
Dorothy Atkinson
Marion Bailey
Paul Jesson
Lesley Manville
Martin Savage
Music by         Gary Yershon
Cinematography         Dick Pope
Edited by        Jon Gregory
Focus Features International
Lipsync Productions
Thin Man Films
Xofa Productions
Distributed by            Entertainment One
Release dates 
15 May 2014 (Cannes)
31 October 2014 (United Kingdom)
19 December 2014 (United States)
Running time  150 minutes
Country          United Kingdom
Language        English

Impressions of Mr Turner: a film researcher’s view from books to screen
Premiere of director Mike Leigh’s film ends a collaborative creative process that started more than two years ago
Jacqueline Riding

On a sunny afternoon in December two years ago, the cast and crew of the film Mr Turner – then only known as Untitled 13 – gathered in central London for a read through. Only there was no read through, because there was no script.

Mike Leigh’s film-making process is intensive and collaborative, with character, action and dialogue gradually emerging from months of research, discussion and improvisation – and he told us that this method is broadly the same whatever the subject. It was a process that would develop over six months of rehearsals, and a four-month shoot.

At the initial stage there was a lot of reading (the books on JMW Turner alone can be measured by the yard), and site visits and dossiers to be created – of Turner’s family, partners, fellow artists, friends, patrons, associates – out of which the time span of the film is settled, themes and events are defined, characters are selected and actors cast. We managed to get agreement from a large number of museums and galleries to use their images and selected hundreds of works that could be included in the set-piece reconstructions, such as Turner’s Queen Anne Street gallery and the magnificent 1832 Royal Academy summer exhibition. The next research stage was a sort of actors’ art/history boot camp, which happened alongside the actors’ sessions with Mike, because everything and anything that was read or experienced might find its way into the character, the scene and the dialogue.

This meant a lot of work for each actor, particularly Timothy Spall, playing Turner. For a character such as Turner, one challenge is knowing when to stop. With others, such as his close companion Sophia Booth (played by Marion Bailey) and his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), surprisingly little had been written about them, considering the gamut of Turner biographies.

But to give an indication of the overall scale and scope of the research covered: in early December 2012 there were 40 actors, which gradually expanded to 76 as the rehearsal period went on, until the characters included a monarch, a barber, an earl, an art critic, a sherry merchant, an evangelical Anglican, a doctor, a slave ship carpenter, a photographer, an army officer, an architect, two prostitutes and 15 artists (including the great man himself).

The research took us from Kensington Palace to Berry Bros & Rudd fine wine merchants, from the Royal Hospital Museum in Chelsea to the Royal London Hospital at Whitechapel, and from Sir John Soane’s Museum to Margate and Twickenham (Turner’s House). Paul Jesson (playing William Turner senior) had lessons in traditional wet shaving, while Leo Bill (as the photographer John JE Mayall) had sessions on daguerreotype photography with expert David Burder.

I spent months in the British Library and the London Library – the latter packed full of wonderful material such as an 1813 housekeeping manual that provided a useful contemporary recipe for a pig’s head stuffing, using brains and bread crumbs, and early travel guides to Kent.

There were sessions for the “artists” in the library and archive of the Royal Academy, hands-on pigment and oil-paint classes at Winsor & Newton fine art materials and back at U13 central, group discussions on art theory, history and practice. At the Royal Museums and Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, the same group covered everything from Lord Nelson, Trafalgar and the Temeraire to decorative history painting and European marine art – the latter courtesy of my sister, Christine Riding, who happened to be curating the major exhibition, Turner and the Sea, which Leigh opened in November 2013.

From early on, some form of reconstruction of Turner’s most famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire, was discussed. Clearly computer-generated imagery would be required, but the reality was very different to Turner’s vision. It is known that the Royal Navy had stripped the ship of anything useful, including her masts, and that she was taken up the Thames to Rotherhithe by two tugs and that her last journey to the breaker’s wharf began on the morning of 5 September 1838 to take advantage of the spring tides. No masts, no ethereal glow, no lone jaunty tug, no elegiac sunset.

But then Turner’s painting is essentially a construct of his own imagination using the bare facts of the event as a starting point. That the scene in the film shows a masted war ship and a sunset, with Turner and his companions Clarkson Stanfield (Mark Stanley) and David Roberts (Jamie Thomas King) taking a boat down the Thames to see her, is following Turner’s lead – an imagined scene full of poignant historical resonances, and a little knowing humour, based on the event and in this case the painting it stimulated. I believe the result is spectacular.

A highlight of one rehearsal involved seven actors, including Spall and Josh McGuire (Turner’s champion John Ruskin), which began with a discussion on gooseberries and then segued into the relative merits of Claude Lorrain (then, as now, a revered French 17th-century painter) and Turner’s own representations of the sea.

In the film, you are watching months, years actually, of preparation and graft, gradually evolved from improvisations, then honed into an elegant, funny and revealing five-minute scene. Ultimately, my role was to provide information, to advise, to avoid any howlers and then to stand back. For, as Mike says, this is a movie, not a documentary.

The author was the lead researcher on Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner

The real Mr Turner: has Mike Leigh’s film got its man?

Timothy Spall plays the painter as a rough diamond, a blast of the roistering 18th century in the moralising Victorian era

Timothy Spall’s Turner is a strange, magnificent being. He gurns, he growls, he mumbles and grumbles. It is impossible not to be fascinated and moved by him. His onscreen death made me cry. But how much does this great plum pie of a man churning his way through a 19th-century England resemble the actual JMW Turner, who was born in 1775 and died in 1851?

The real Turner was a lot more handsome and elegant, at least in his own eyes. Spall’s Turner admits that “when I look in the mirror, I see a gargoyle”. Real Turner, when he was about 24 years old – much younger than when we meet him in the film – gazed in the mirror and saw a handsome, debonair, fiercely perceptive youth, his wide open eyes looking straight ahead, seeing everything.

It is those eyes that contain the true Turner. It is in their fiery vision of nature, myth and history that all his secrets can be found.

Turner lives in his paintings. You only have to stroll through Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery, which displays works from the copious bequest of his own work that Turner left the nation, or visit the same museum’s Late Turner exhibition, to realise that most of the painter’s time, energy and emotion must have gone into producing sketches, watercolours and oil paintings. The sex life and affairs whose enigmas drive the film did not matter to him except as light relief from all that exhausting work.

In short, the real Turner was not as cuddly as Leigh makes him. He was a driven artist. He wanted to compete not just with contemporaries such as John Constable – who in the film looks appropriately downtrodden by Turner’s remorseless artistic strength – but Poussin, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci. He did it – he painted himself into the pantheon of the greatest artists of all time. There is no evidence that he cared who he hurt to get there.

Spall’s Turner is a rough diamond. Really rough. We see him spurn a former mistress and refuse to acknowledge paternity of their children; completely true. We also see him drawing a prostitute in a brothel – again, true to what is known about him. But the greatness of Spall’s acting lies in humanising a man who at times seems so brutal and cold. When he thinks about the daughter whose funeral he didn’t attend, he weeps. When he makes the prostitute pose, he also weeps. Is it guilt?

Leigh and Spall are just as blind as the moralising Victorians were to what is likely to have been Turner’s real attitude to love, sex and family responsibilities: he probably never felt a shred of anxiety about any of it. Where he came from, loving and leaving was natural. For he came from the 18th century.

Turner was the victim of a culture clash. He grew up and became an artist in the freewheeling Georgian age, when London was full of Hogarthian rakes and Moll Flanders types on the make. Even coffee houses frequently doubled as brothels. Don’t even ask about the bathhouses. As the Cambridge historian Vic Gatrell, whose recent book The First Bohemians delves into the artistic and sexual scene of 18th-century Covent Garden, told me: “I don’t think he’s self-conscious about his libertine ways.”

Eighteenth-century libertinism was simply the culture that shaped young Turner. He was born in Maiden Lane, close by Covent Garden, then the heart of London’s gambling, drinking and commercial sex district. His father was a barber, his mother was mentally ill, perhaps schizophrenic, and ended up in the notorious Bedlam hospital. It was, says Gatrell, a bohemian world.

This London of loose morals was remote from the same city in which he died in 1851. In the course of his lifetime, British manners were transformed. The freedoms of the Georgian age had become constrained by starched collars and cast-iron respectability. Turner’s great critical champion, John Ruskin, was one of the most Victorian of Victorians, and when he went through Turner’s artistic bequest at the National Gallery, he felt ill. He found not just the landscapes he loved, but sketches “of the most shameful sort – the pudenda of women – utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable”. Ruskin revealed that he burned most of Turner’s erotic art, for the good of his hero’s reputation and the national soul. Strangely enough, he seems to have been lying. Tate Britain has now located enough of Turner’s sexy watercolours to establish that Ruskin never did burn them – or if he did destroy some, there must really have been a lot.

This was the second shock Ruskin and other Victorian Turner fans had suffered. The first was when he died in the secret Chelsea home he shared with his last lover, Mrs Booth, a Margate landlady. Leigh is on firmer ground in making this relationship touching and warm – they were both old enough and their life together lasted long enough for it to have been emotional, not just a libertine’s last fling.

In Turner’s painting Apollo and Python in Tate Britain, the ancient Greek god Apollo has just slain a horrific serpentine monster. Turner surrounds Apollo with golden light. He is the embodiment of reason and – literally – enlightenment. The monster Python lies tangled in the branches of devastated trees, its viscera spewing out. Its jaws are almost invisible in the darkness that envelops this part of the picture. Looking into that gloom, you start to notice something disturbing. There are other monsters in the dark. A glittering eye, a gruesome set of fangs glisten in the shadows. Python is dead, but unreason lives on. More monsters are creeping forward to threaten all that is good.

Is this painting autobiographical? It might be an exploration of the artist’s own dark side. He may be thinking of his mother’s madness. Was he scared of going mad himself? Yet any such personal feelings are translated by Turner to the lofty level of history painting. His art aspires all the time to say things not about him, but about the human condition. Apollo and Python is one of the greatest of all paintings of a Greek myth because it so deeply and resonantly reveals the poetry and philosophy of the ancient legend – that it is a story about reason, unreason and the nature of civilisation.

The inarticulacy of Spall’s Turner is true to life. He was mocked for it – and again it comes from his unvarnished London childhood. He came “out of the people, out of the plebs”, says Gatrell. But there’s always going to be something missing from our understanding of Turner if we only listen to his sometimes stumbling words. His paintings, truly, are where the real Mr Turner can be found. In them he does not stumble. He never has – Ruskin was right to insist – a mean or ignoble thought. Apollo and Python is unutterably profound. It is in his works of unparalleled insight and nuance that we encounter the real Mr Turner – the genius.

No comments: