Colour is absolute.

Colour is absolute.

One of my favorite photography instructors used to say “I can teach you how to use a camera; I can’t teach you how to see”. It’s a phrase I’ve always carried with me, since I believe it’s what truly makes an artist. When they look at the world, they isolate patterns, tones, textures, and colours in ways that the others do not. Often that vision extends to how they capture what they see, using what most of us would consider primitive techniques to convey their vision.

How an artist sees and how they express what they see are two of the themes at the core of MR. TURNER – a splendid new offering by director Mike Leigh.

The titular character of this film is J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), or “John” to those who know him best – which is a shockingly small amount. As the film begins, he has already established his voice and stature within the cultural landscape of 19th Century England. When we find him, he is working steadily, living quite comfortably, and keeping a lower profile than an artist of his stature might.

Time and again, we watch him create his masterworks – bold pieces that sometimes include daring use of colour, and sometimes precious little colour at all. Turner isn’t afraid to get messy in the creation of these incredible works, which often flies in the face of the style of the day. The results though are undeniable…even if his contemporaries didn’t always think so.

When Turner isn’t painting, he’s shuttling back and forth between London and Chelsea. When he’s in London, he is most alive when he’s around his father, William (Paul Jesson). His father makes sure he’s well-fed, well-looked-after, helps show and sell the work, and ensures William always has a fresh palette of paint to work with and a well-primed canvas. Turner’s only other constant in London is his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). Like William, Hannah tries to see to it that Turner is well-looked-after. Unlike William, her efforts are seldom appreciated.

However, splendid as that situation seems, Turner’s heart always seems to be pulled down river to Chelsea. It’s there that he rents a room from a woman named Sophia (Marion Bailey). Something in Chelsea – and Sophia – inspires him. At first he doesn’t tell her who he is, seemingly drawn to the simpler life that she offers.  While his cover is eventually blown, he keeps on returning to Chelsea…seemingly seeing it as a way to get away from the conservative art scene of London, and the staunch views of the Royal Academy of Arts (where his work is displayed).

Chelsea and Sophia represent passion and spirit: two virtues key to Turner’s work.

Timothy Spall

In some ways, I feel as though writing about MR. TURNER is a foolish exercise. After all, this is a film that makes no bones about its position on criticism – especially amateur criticism. In fact, it slams the brakes on the story halfway home to let us hear just how foolhardy people can sound when they care too much about the sound of their own voice. It casts us all as thick-headed twits who look into things too deeply, or not enough, and care less for a conversation than we do for making a point. In that regard, it’s no wonder that Turner spends most of the film huffing and grunting like a boar. Listen to enough idiotic opinions and words are bound to feel useless eventually.

In the face of such shallow criticism, the film wants to remind us that there are certainties in this world that we cannot ignore. There is mastery of technique that we may not be ready for or wish to recognize, but that does not, in truth, make it any less masterful. There is harmony of light and space that scatters into true beauty if we just open our eyes long enough to see it. Seeing Turner run his laps from the city to the seaside, we slowly see the truth. To understand these existential certainties, a vulnerability is required that most of us do not possess – the ability to put our own egos aside for a moment and allow ourselves to drown in a moment. Only then, when we shed ourselves of conceit are we able to see this world for all that it is, and perhaps even capture a morsel of it in artistic fashion.

Watching Spall in this film at first seems curious – one wonders in the early going just how much grunting in a film one needs. Before long though, we find ourselves drawn to his grumpy solitude. He makes up for his lack of chatter by inspiring his observers if they choose to watch him long enough…but the trick is watching him long enough. It’s like a test; an obstacle put in place to detract the bothersome lookie-loos and gather the genuinely intrigued.

Those of us who are genuinely intrigued get rewarded by a redefinition of empathy, technique, inspiration, and purpose.

Turner – and by extension, the film – is deeply fascinated with the passage of time. With every passing years, new technological marvels come into our lives. Sometimes they offer greater convenience and comfort, sometimes they threaten to make us obsolete. Seeing Turner encounter modern inventions brings upon our own feelings of wonder and worry. There’s a “wow” factor that often comes with experiencing technological evolution for the first time, and a desire to know how things work. But as we watch Turner’s face when presented with inventions that pose a threat to his place in the world, we can see traces of true worry…even as he does his best to hide it.

MR. TURNER is glorious in its celebration of subtlety. Like so many other works by director Mike Leigh, it eschews grand spectacle in a greater quest for beauty in the everyday. In that way, the film is a fitting tribute to the man himself. In fact, if the film has a totem, it’s the moment the film encapsulates Turner’s iconic “The Fighting Temeraire“. When we come upon it, it’s happenstance, like so much of Turner’s work…but soon the master sees the exquisiteness of the scene. Perhaps, something inside of him also sees the poetic honesty of it. It’s a vision, after all, that represents all of our lives in one simple metaphor; we all start out as the tugboat, but one day we wake up and we’re the wreck.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on MR. TURNER.