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Friday, 7 November 2014

Remember me, but forget my fate ~ Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell

This is a review of Mr. Turner (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

7 November

This is a review of Mr. Turner (2014)

Probably too much has already been written, spoken or just thought about Mr. Turner (2014) since its win for Timothy Spall at Cannes (as well as for cinematographer Dick Pope), and its nomination for the Palme d’Or. (And maybe it has not attracted much attention, but the scoring of the film is so intelligent, just even with the simple falling motif on alto sax (four saxes are credited), picked up by the strings.) So the unaccustomed aim here will be (relative) brevity :

The simple truth is that Spall, Pope and director Mike Leigh, amongst others, have collaborated on an excellently cinematic piece of work. Whether or not one wishes to interpret the composition of shots as somehow mimetic of Turner's painterly art and / or vision, the quality of them, and the care behind them, is profound : unlike some films, incidentally using this medium (as a way of reaching an audience with a story), the film is indissoluble from the story.

Just as, in Mr. Turner, we see the artist having confidence in his work* (declaring that he is leaving it, as a collection, to the nation : the collection that, indeed, we have at Tate Britain (@Tate)), Leigh likewise has every reason to be pleased with what this film looks like and says.

Whether the details of art history (or of biographical fact) are correct is for others to debate (to the extent that we can know). Others, for example, can research Turner's known relations with his father or his niece, or observe on what basis we can say what did happen with that daub of red paint at the summer exhibition (?) at The Royal Academy. The fact is that, with Spall (and others), Leigh has - as he said himself to Radio 3 Free Thinking's (@BBCFreeThinking's) Matthew Sweet - someone who can be seen to be sketching, applying paint to a canvas, scumbling.

Leigh has no need for Spall to be Turner through and through, researched ad infinitum, but a man such as we see could have happened to be such an artist, a man embodying an economy of means and words, who was J. M. W. Turner.

In fact, it is actually of no importance to the worth of this film whether there ever was a Mrs Sophia Booth in Margate - she could be conflation, or pure invention, for all that it matters. Even more vigorously and vividly than Daniel Auteuil does Marseille in Marius and Fanny, Leigh creates this Margate, the industry on the foreshore, the close quarters on land, the sails from the front windows : we believe that Turner would choose such a spot, such scenes, such a woman (as Marion Bailey becomes, in Sophia).

It is almost, in a rather Becketttian way**, as though Leigh creates the creating Turner as his creature, in which aim Leigh is in no way about what Ralph Fiennes worked to achieve with Dickens in his The Invisible Woman (2013). That film seems to tell his lack of moral courage and to rehabilitate him sympathetically in our eyes at the same time ; although Mr. Turner does share an era with when Dickens' illicit relationship took place, the mores here seem to be quite different.

Spall may be 5’8”, but the sense that Leigh’s framing and Pope’s camerawork give is of the presence of the man, his bulk in the scene, as what balances it and makes it complete*** - just as we see him, discovered as we follow two local women along a canal path at the start, working from the perfect point on the opposite bank for the view that he wants.

Or, for example, when Turner is on his way (to Chelsea ?), we are confronted with an assemblage of people, who are there for us to view as he strides past. The assurance in the construction of this film matches Turner’s confidence about what he was giving the nation :

Although it was tempting to use another quotation, No good deed goes unpunished, this review is titled with one from 'Dido's Lament' (from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas) : not for nothing does Leigh have Spall, feelingly if obviously not expertly, sing along to Miss Coggins' (Karina Fernandez's****) playing this number. As Turner reaches for the words (finding, as happens with even the best-learnt text, synonyms that fit the scansion), he is virtually writing his own epitaph.

Content with himself, as he strolls around the Academy show, being acknowledged, making comment, he is most of all a man who has a position that he knows - or knows himself by his position ? Having a daguerrotype made - and then persuading Mrs Booth to do the same with him - he is not the obedient subject, but exercising his intellect to understand the mechanism and the medium, rather than accepting what is presented, and how that is done.

And, there, Leigh cannot resist giving him prescience for our modern obsession with making / distributing images.


* We also see that it could have been far from facile to maintain that belief, because of trends in fashion / art such as that which began just with the initials ‘PRB’, before The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ventured its name…

The young John Ruskin (in a scene that some view as unforgivably disrespectful of him) cannot venerate Claude as Turner does, but seeks to worship Turner in his stead - the key point, other than that Ruskin is young, is that Turner's estimation of his own work does not depend on no longer valuing what went before : he likens Sophia to a representation of Aphrodite, he respects Claude for painting the sea 'from the land'.

** Thinking of the late 'novels', Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho.

Quick - leave him !

*** Not in the same way, exactly, as in the montage that closes Calvary (2014), but the closing shot is of absence, of grief. And, when we see the dying Turner, it has been arranged so that Sophia Booth, to his right, is in a shallow depth of field, and is the one in focus.

**** Another Leigh regular, along with Lesley Manville (Mrs Somerville) and David Horovitch (Dr. Price) - as was Spall himself, in the mid 1990s.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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