Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has been universally praised. Were we missing something? Would we think better of the film in recollecting it, or seeing it again? Possibly.
The film starts out with a problem, or rather several problems, from the point of view of dramatic interest. J.M.W.Turner as a subject. Only imagine an incredulous old-time Hollywood mogul listening to the pitch: What you have here (it would have to go) is the story of a man successful from the beginning, rich, honoured by his professional peers, having no unfulfilled or ill-starred romantic passions we know of, no serious rivals, who never seems to have been blocked in a prodigious output of art works, or done anything he did not choose to do, and died in bed in domestic comfort, mourned and revered, a national treasure.
Since there is no conflict to speak of, the film doubles down on two other staples of cinematic technique. One of which is acting, or perhaps we should say Acting. Timothy Spall’s Turner puffs and grunts, squints and waddles, stabs and spits, he gropes and nuzzles and rogers, he mostly frowns but sometimes twinkles and now and again chortles. Turner’s housekeeper, played by Dorothy Atkinson, contributes a supplementary gallimaufry of moues and angular postures. This perpetual motion of deep but largely indecipherable inner commotion has the effect of substituting for plot. It also sucks up all the available oxygen, the rest of the film stranded in the parallel universe of a mediocre costume piece. It invites us to think that when Turner acts badly he is being misunderstood, as only a man of such profound absence of social skills and repellent aspect can be misunderstood. We are being offered an intuition, rather than an explanation, of Turner’s greatness as an artist. It must have to do with the temperament.
The other staple, which Mr. Turner deploys in abundance, is atmosphere. The sun is here, the sun is there. Glowing through mist, burning brazenly on a molten sea, in calm and in storm, setting clouds, smog, industrial fire and smoke, alike ablaze with inner transcendental glory. So this is how those late masterpieces—The Fighting Temeraire (1838); Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying) (1840); Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842); Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)— came to be! Turner painted what he saw! But sumptuousness in cinema is ultimately the enemy of understanding that requires stillness, comparison, thought. The film achieves the trick of diminishing the pictures it is presumably celebrating. Why visit the Tate when you can go directly to Margate?
There are hints of Art History. Mr. Turner gets off between grunts that Claude Lorrain was a genius. A twinkling squint appears to express contempt for the Pre-Raphaelites. The figure who could sort this all out for us, however, the greatest critic of the age, John Ruskin, is represented in the film as a lisping, camp, dilettante, a fool.