James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Review (Theatrical): MR. TURNER (2014)

Called “the most versatile, successful, and controversial landscape painter of nineteenth-century England,” Joseph Mallord William Turner’s artistic, social and personal life during his middle and later years is the subject of Mike Leigh‘s 2014 film Mr. Turner. Starring rubber-jowled British character actor Timothy Spall as the grunting, curmudgeonly painter of light who pushed into the bleeding edge of what we now call abstract painting, this slow-paced but enjoyable biography proves a stimulating, moving piece of arthouse entertainment.


As with so many visionary artists throughout history (and bio-pics like this), Turner, guttural but highly intelligent and articulate, treats many of those closest to him with at best indifference and at worst disdain, such as his grown daughters for whom he seems to hold little regard or interest. There’s little mention of their mother, a bit more about Turner’s, who with his doting father is dismissive of that ‘crazy bitch’ as they laugh about her, otherwise long forgotten.

Turner’s single-mindedness—his sketchbook is never far, and he’s always in need of canvas being stretched—doesn’t keep him from falling for a seaside widow at a rooming house to which he often travels to paint in the wonderful light in the apartment facing the bay. He’s a bit unkempt and a brute in the sack—his seduction technique evokes more of the caveman vibe than that of a refined Renaissance painter—but Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) quickly falls for his charms more than his reputation, a companion to replace his deceased father, who literally worked himself into the grave providing support to his son.
Cannes 2014: Mr Turner
As for Turner’s reputation among his contemporaries, at an art exhibition we see how he stalks the other landscape and war paintings with the jaundiced eye of a critic, his own contributions shoved into an anteroom along with a few other disappointed painters. So many have work in the exhibition, in fact, that paintings are hung from floor to ceiling for the royals and other hoity-toity hoi polloi to parade past and admire.

In a crucial scene, Turner ridicules another artist meticulously continuing to work on his battlefield piece until the last second by defacing his own blue seascape with carmine ink. Following the gasps of the gathered artists, Turner deftly transforms the defacement into an asset to his painting. He is a master. The other, they’re trying too hard. You just have to look. And to see. And to paint.

Turner has a specific eye and a specific calling in mind, to depict the world as he sees it. The most beautiful and indeed painterly moments in the film, shot by Oscar® nominated Dick Pope, allow us to glimpse the extraordinary and sublime grace of the natural world as Turner saw it, sketched it, and then attempted to depict in his paintings, which over time grew so abstract that the mainstream art critics of his day wagged hateful tongues with such epithets as “poor Turner, his eyesight’s obviously going.” Impaired or not, Turner lived and breathed his artworks. He sketched and painted to his dying days, amassing wealth but apparently never quite selling out. Admirable.

Mr Turner 3

Leigh, a maker of modern-day versions of the old British ‘kitchen sink’ middle class dramas as well as the occasional period piece like this (Topsy Turvy), allows the story to unfold at a pace replicating the slower life of those times, when technology like steamships would enable Turner’s visions, but the daguerreotype camera will present a potential threat to the role of the artist: if a machine can capture what seems a verifiable image of reality, what then does the public need with a painter of landscapes, and his artistic interpretation of what he sees? This conundrum calls up the deepest questions of what it means to create art, a thematic element further bolstering an already rich and rewarding filmgoing experience.

Luckily, Turner’s work, as well as painting itself, has outlasted any attempts to definitely answer such questions, and if his carmine and other pigments have faded, I’m pleased to report that this vivid movie of his life and approach to art-making arrives as an entertaining, edifying piece of cinema worthy of an artist such as its subject. Highest recommendation.

Mr. Turner is showing now through April 9, 2015 at The Nickelodeon, Columbia’s nonprofit arthouse cinema since 1979.

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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