Mr. Turner: A Very Short Review

by Brenda W. Clough

Turner I am on a Mike Leigh kick these days, and so I could not miss Mr. Turner, one in the plethora of biopics about dead British geniuses this year. With its fanatical historical correctness and affection for the creative arts his Topsy-Turvy completely delighted me. This one is equally a tour-de-force, but not a musical one. Appropriately, it’s almost dizzyingly lush to see — a visual feast that will make you drunk.

J.M. W. Turner was a genius, but he was kindly described as eccentric — that classic British trait! The movie doesn’t miss a bit of it. The hero is gross, obsessive, profoundly selfish. He is fully a man of his time, the early 19th century, whoring, drinking, and sexually abusing the maid. He grunts! But the film magnificently captures his genius. You see not only Turner’s paintings, but the scenes and events that inspire them. They went so far as to mooch a historic locomotive from a technology museum, so that Turner’s train painting could be staged. The movie is unbelievably beautiful, and has been nominated for a number of prizes.Actor Timothy Spall utterly inhabits the part.

As apparently is Leigh’s habit, it’s not long on plot. This is simply the last quarter-century of the great man’s life, dramatized. so you don’t get narrative arc. You don’t get closure. All those things they tell us in Plot and Composition classes, they are not here. And you don’t need them.

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Mr. Turner: A Very Short Review — 12 Comments

  1. Exactly that. It’s not only gorgeous, but you come away with a sense of what it was like to inhabit that time and place. One of the things that’s lovely is that, despite his fairly high standard of living, and mixing with nobility and royalty, you never get a sense that Turner was upper class himself (he wasn’t) or pretending to be. He doesn’t attempt the late-19the century trick of trying to gentrify his accent (which is not, shall we say, genteel) in order to climb. His genius has brought him certain things, and he enjoys them, but he is still positively servile with his patrons.

    Wonderful movie. Wow.

  2. [ ” All those things they tell us in Plot and Composition classes, they are not here. And you don’t need them. ” ]

    Because they are all there via the very technique of Turner’s painting and color palette — rendered through the art of screen cinematography. I remain breathless at the artistic achievement of Turner. One can reasonably suppose, even, that Turner himself would have approved. He did have an abiding interest in technology and science, and employed them himself where and when feasible.

    Love, C.

  3. I loved the bit when he insists that he and his common-law wife get a picture taken. The poor woman was clearly terrified. (Why did he never marry? In a period when marriage was expected of everybody.)

  4. He had no need to marry at all, particularly with his father’s abject service for so long.

    Something else remarkable for this film, particularly an historical period film centering a celebrated personage of achievement: there is nothing in the film, no character, no event, no episode, that were fictionalized.

    Turner has long been my most admired artist out of this period of art history. As well, I attended with an art historian for whom this time is his specialty. So I can make that statement with confidence. 🙂

    Love, C.

    • Really! Then maybe you could recommend me a Turner biography. I would like to know more. So the mother of his daughters, the grouchy blonde woman, was not his wife either? I suppose if women will allow you to live with them there is no need to actually tie the knot.
      I did note that his landlady was a woman of property– she sold her first house and bought the one by the river that he died in.Which meant that after his demise, even if she was not his widow (not being married) she wasn’t destitute. Whereas the mother of those daughters, and even his housemaid, were fresh out of luck. Without any legal claim to his estate, they were bound for the workhouse.

      • The problem with reccing a single bio is that, as with any personage whose influence and reputation continues down the generations, there is no single bio that will give a researcher all that she needs. While there are numerous titles dealing with Turner’s work that are excellent, there aren’t any that are wholly satisfactory for dealing with the man. For one thing it’s impossible to separate the artist from the man.

        So, when considering Turner, it’s more helpful to keep in mind that he was NOT a Victorian, but rather, the very thing against which the Victorian era was reacting.

        The artist is a product of the last quarter of the 18th century and the Age of Revolution (he was born in 1775) and the “heroic era of Napoleon.” (Artists of the time did tend to view Napoleon as a figure much greater than life, including Beethoven, though many of them tended to change their minds by 1810 – 1l, including Beethoven himself, viewing him as a monster, not the great hero who bestrode worlds of their previous willing or unwilling admiration and imagination.)

        He also was heir to a certain level of unbalanced mentality, via what appears to be a family trait through the maternal side. Turner’s own deviations from the norm were viewed within the traditionally established English tolerance for eccentricity, and certainly tolerated due to his genius. His career comes to fulfillment during what we call the Age of Romanticism, so Genius is a word people used: see, Byron.

        These are the three volumes about Turner I have on my shelves:

        Bockemühl, Michael (2006). J. M. W. Turner, 1775–1851: The World of Light and Colour.

        Joll, Evelyn (ed.); Butlin, Martin, Herrmann, Luke (2001). The Oxford Companion to J. M. W. Turner. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

        Wilton, Andrew (2006). Turner in His Time (Revised ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.

        • Super, thanks so much. I have noted them as Want to Read on Goodreads (such a handy feature) which means I won’t forget or lose the titles.

  5. [ ” I did note that his landlady was a woman of property– she sold her first house and bought the one by the river that he died in.Which meant that after his demise, even if she was not his widow (not being married) she wasn’t destitute. Whereas the mother of those daughters, and even his housemaid, were fresh out of luck. Without any legal claim to his estate, they were bound for the workhouse. ” ]

    He was very secretive about his personal life, and few details of it were known to his professional companions. He did help support Sarah Danby’s children — those two girls were by her deceased husband; they were not Turner’s. It is thought that she may have had another child via Turner, but it is uncertain.

    As for Sophia Caroline Booth, maybe he liked her because she had no, and made no claims on him? She probably ministered to all his needs in the same way his father had?

    But we don’t know and we never will.

    • I note that the movie goes into no detail at all on the subject, either. Leigh resisted the temptation to psychoanalyze, supply motivation — all those modern things. It just is as it was. Unlike The Invisible Woman, the biopic about Charles Dickens and his mistress.

      • Yah, Turner was much more than a bio pic and a vastly superior creation than The Invisible Woman, essentially a television costume drama cosy.

        • Turner was creative, imaginative and original, while wholly honest. The Invisible Woman was the opposite of these aspects.