Saturday, March 7, 2015

Movie: Mr. Turner

This independent film, by English director, Mike Leigh, explores the last twenty-five years of arguably the greatest British painter, J.M.W.Turner. Joseph Mallard William Turner was born in 1775 to William Turner, a barber and wig maker. His mother suffered from mental illness and was eventually hospitalized. Her illness led to Turner being sent away to school. The senior Turner encouraged his son's artistic talent early on and his earliest drawings were sometimes sold from his father's barbershop.

Turner gained admittance to the Royal Academy schools in 1789 and advanced through them studying various art mediums. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1790 through to 1796. Turner often painted in water colours but he also mastered oil. His first exhibited oil painting was Fishermen at Sea. He was elected an Associate of the Academy in 1799 and an Academician in 1802.

Turner travelled all throughout England - Yorkshire and the Lake Distric as well as Wales, with the intent of improving his craft. During the Treaty of Amiens, in which the hostilities between the England and the French Republic ceased, Turner was able to travel to Paris and into the Alps and Switzerland. The Napoleonic Wars interrupted his travels on the continent but he did eventually travel to Italy in 1819. His travels in Italy, especially Venice, were to have a profound effect on his art.  He focused on the grandeur and violent power of nature, painting storms, avalanches, volcanic eruptions and fires.  He painted numerous marine scenes and even had himself lashed to the mast of a ship so he could capture the fury of a storm in his painting Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water and going by the Lead. This obsession with the power of nature led to a gradual evolution in his art. Instead of representing form by line, Turner gradually utilized colour and light. In this regard he was ahead of his time, resulting in the public and fellow artists alike not understanding what he was attempting to accomplish.

Turner's father lived with him for thirty years and was his studio assistant. His father passed away in 1829 and his death affected him keenly. Turner never married but was believed to be the father of two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana by Sarah Danby. He lived with his mistress, Sophia Caroline Booth in Chelsea where he died in 1851.

The film, Mr. Turner is essentially a character sketch of the artist that focuses not so much on his art, as on his personal eccentricities. Well known British actor, Timothy Spall, who portrayed the famous painter spent considerable time preparing for the role. He spent two years under the tutelage of Tim Wright who taught Spall to paint like Turner. In total, Wright had him create three hundred pieces of art. That Spall succeeded is evident in scenes where he is painting - he really does appear to be accomplish. However, the paintings seen in close ups are the work of artist Charlie Cobb while those shown in the background are prints.

The movie picks up Turner's life as a middle-aged man living with his father.  Spall captures Turner's libertine ways, common to the Georgian age which comprised most of his life.  By the Victorian age, social mores were changing and after his death, John Ruskin who went through Turner's art supposedly found a great deal of erotic art which he claimed to have destroyed.

Spall was able to accurately portray some of Turner's supposed mannerisms including his grunts and snuffles that he was known to make while painting, although sometimes it was difficult to understand the dialogue between the accent and the grunts and snorts.

At times Mr. Turner lags; the pacing is slow through most of the movie, picking up towards the end. Leigh manages to show a Turner who is focused on his art, traveling about the country, sketching constantly, involved in the Academy and even lecturing. His housekeeper's declining health is well shown as we see Hannah who suffered from psoriasis, which was a greatly misunderstood condition in the 19th century, shunned and at a complete loss at his death.

This movie is Restricted in Canada mainly due to its somewhat limited, but graphic sexual content. Turner is shown visiting a brothel and there is also other sexual content in the movie.

Mr. Turner will definitely appeal to those interested in either the artist or the art of film and so it's likely your best bet to catch it before it goes to DVD is through film clubs.

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