At the beginning of the twentieth century the American Vachel Lindsay N. defined cinema as “an iconic writing that, thanks to the movement, had endowed the figurative arts of a virtue.” Yet compared to previous years, there is less and less space in the movies for the lives of painters, even if playing more with languages (let’s think of Bacon seen by last Gustav Deutschor or the next Van Gogh, celebrated by Dorota Kobiela with a polyphonically painted animated film).
Far from experimentations, the new film by Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner, shows how much the relationship between one of the oldest arts and the modern art form par excellence, continues to manifest itself in a continuous transfusion of vitality. The British director, considered one of the greatest exponents of the great tradition of British realism, focuses on the last quarter, more precisely from 1826 to 1851, of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner, “the painter of light”, of free and passionate brush strokes, lover of the full sovereignty of colour, of the sea, and of storms up to the point of getting tied to the mast of a ship in order to paint a snowstorm.
Deeply affected by the death of his father, Turner, played by Timothy Spall, lives with his historical and devoted housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson, by whom he is loved but towards whom he shows no interest or regard, using her only to satisfy his sexual appetites. Meanwhile, he spends his time traveling, painting, socializing with the landowning aristocracy, frequenting brothels, and becoming a respected, albeit maverick, member of the Royal Academy of the Arts.
Set against the backdrop of the Victorian period, Leigh, with sensitive, careful, and measured direction, portrays a man who at times could be false and evil, but also generous and capable of bursts of poetry. In fact he refuses an offer of one hundred thousand sterling pounds from a millionaire who wants to buy of all his works, preferring to leave his legacy to the English state, because he wants them to be seen “all together, in one place, for free.” Timothy Spall manages to restore the most disturbing and unpleasant side of the artist who drew from a large repertoire of grunts to express sexual pleasure, disapproval, or complacency when he concluded a still-fresh painting, spitting on it to soften the colours. But it is the sublime photography of Dick Pope where the landscape views really stick out to reveal the genius of Turner, who will learn to transcend the realistic in favour of a more free and personal vision, thereby upsetting the canons of judgment of his own era.
And on account of this he was a misunderstood artist. Hailed by some and reviled by others, including Queen Victoria herself, for his stubbornness to create a mixture of indefinite colours that do not give a very recognizable image, Turner takes refuge more and more in himself and in his painting, his reason for living. Like in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), where everything is reduced to a skyline and two traversing diagonals, one to the left and one to the right, representing a bridge upon which a train is passing, symbol of a progress that overwhelms everything, and making the space and the objects unrecognizable. A painting that more than others will mark the estrangement of Turner from his contemporaries and that will make the great and eccentric English painter an important reference for the Abstract Impressionist movement of the twentieth century.
The genius is not always romantic. Most of them are strange, and are often sociopaths. Turner was a kind of monkey. “He was of humble origins but had an extraordinary soul,” Mike Leigh’s word for it!
by Mike Leigh
Production: Film4, Focus Features International, Lipsync
Distribution: Bim Distribution