Mike Leigh’s latest work, a highly episodic “scenes from the life of the artist” film about J. M.W. Turner, begs a question that has dogged me throughout life. I have gazed dutifully upon Turner’s paintings and repeatedly wondered, “Why am I doing this?” In college, in a class called “Introduction to Modern Art” we were required to buy an anthology with a Turner seascape on its cover. I knew enough to identify the image as a Turner, but also noticed that few of the readings mentioned Turner at all. And his name came up not once—I repeat, not once—in 12 weeks of class discussions of French and Spanish and American artists. Why, I continue to ask, J. M. W. Turner?
Mr. Turner makes a pretty good stab at answering that question, if not conclusively. If we know anything about Turner at all (and most Americans don’t, or so it has seemed to me in conversations I’ve had with friends since this film came out) we associate him with the prescient abstraction of his late work even though it may confound us. His work is hard for non-experts to locate on any timeline of Western art that tries to map a progression from realistic representation to abstraction. It is disorienting to be in the presence of a Turner painting if you think in terms of conventional art historical periods, and Leigh recreates that uncertainty by refusing to place events of Turner’s life directly on a calendar. This temporal displacement causes some people to say, “Wait, I thought Turner was later than this,” while others say the opposite, “Wait, wasn’t he earlier than this?”
I think Leigh wants to surprise us by contrasting the radical late Turner with what came out of the cultural cauldron that produced Victorian normalcy. Turner died in 1851 and so his last decades coincided with the first productive decades of Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and John Ruskin, a figure very much present and rather brutally treated within the film (by brilliant young actor Josh McGuire).
But Turner was a Victorian only in the most literal sense. In fact, he was one of those brilliant oddballs England produced just before it became synonymous with “Empire.” Jane Austen, born in 1775, the same year as Turner, is another, and then there is William Blake, born not that long before either of them. All three have attained reputations beyond their national borders and yet each, in his or her own way, beyond possessing that famously British trait of eccentricity, has come to stand for a certain way of being English. Blake, a revolutionary visionary constitutionally opposed to anything that could be labeled “orthodox,” enjoyed little repute in his own time and would have been astounded, I suspect, to see his poem “Jerusalem” come to be regarded as England’s “unofficial national anthem.” Austen, meanwhile, was an unaccountably shrewd observer of social hypocrisy and, for all her good humor and Johnsonian reason, was arguably the first novelist to observe the endemic spread of neuroses in modern life—and yet she now stands for whatever Bridget Jones is about, and while the film Austenland poked some fun at the commodification of Jane, it would be naïve to rule out the possibility that somebody will someday build an actual theme park in her honor.
Why though, again, Turner, and what does he mean to the English? Hard to say. It’s not terribly easy and probably impossible to connect him to a particular ideology or agenda. Decades ago, John Berger shocked people by pointing out that 18th century landscapes by the likes of Gainsborough were little more that elaborately illustrated property deeds, paintings whose message could be reduced to: “Mr. and Mrs. Andrew own this land. You don’t. You think the landscape is beautiful (and it is) because you don’t own it. We do.”
But nobody owns the sea, not really, even though perhaps no one tried harder to do so than English people during Turner’s lifetime and, indeed, he may at times have been playing to English patriotism. Isn’t there something John-Bullish in his paintings of warships? Is that why the British have voted and chosen Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” as the greatest painting in England? If so, its nationalism is hard for a non-Brit to see. It’s not an image of the role that ship played in Nelson’s famous victory at Trafalgar; instead, it shows the boat being dragged across the harbor to a salvage dock to be disassembled. Not a celebration of empire building so much as an allegory about the way of all flesh, “The Fighting Temeraire” is an aquatic Ozymandias. For the film Leigh invents a scene in which Turner eyeballs the dragging of the Temeraire and plays it for a laugh about the painting’s iconic status, but beyond that Leigh is not really interested in exploring Turner’s contribution to the English semiotic landscape in way that answers the question of why Turner looms so large in English visual history. The film’s mood, at times elegiacal and always autumnal, might suggest that what the English like about Turner has less to do with naval victory and more to do with a feeling for the Natural Sublime and a deep fear of death-by-drowning expressed in English literature as old as Beowulf. But what does “Turner” signify to the English? Mike Leigh makes us wonder but doesn’t tell us.
Of greater apparent concern is the disciplined dedication of an iconoclastic artist to a life of work. One of my suppositions here is that Mr. Turner is probably as close to an autobiography as Leigh will create. It’s not quite Leigh’s 8 ½ and, in fact, Leigh seems critically distant from his subject character at times so as to depict aspects of Mr. Turner’s behavior and attitudes that are, surely, remote from those of Mr. Leigh. I don’t think we are encouraged to draw any particular inferences about Leigh’s own thoughts on how to deal with the business-of-life issues that run through the story: aging while managing lifelong parasites and rivals, aging and dying, aging and sexuality.
In relation to the latter theme, it’s hard not to mention rumors about Leigh’s becoming personally intertwined with Marion Bailey, the actress who plays Turner’s own love interest in the film and is featured in some of the movie’s most startling episodes. But surely we are not to make autobiographical connections between Leigh and Turner’s behavior toward women in general. Leigh show us acts and implied feelings that place Turner in his time but shed little light on how we are to measure his misogyny in relation to his art. It is more than a little annoying to have to note Leigh’s unwillingness to interrogate Turner’s cold treatment of his estranged wife and daughters. Far worse is the painter’s hideous objectification of his housemaid, an especially long-suffering but ostensibly willing sex partner subject to being taken from behind by the master while she’s preoccupied with dusting the knickknacks upon his mantel.
In his own art and (I imagine) life, Mike Leigh treats women with more respect, and many of his stories set in more recent times can easily be seen as overtly feminist—the pro-choice Vera Drake being the most conspicuous example. He gives great freedom to his female actors, notably Lesley Manville and Sally Hawkins in recent years, and he has clearly followed their lead throughout production. Acting is a more conspicuous art than directing in many of best films. Topsy Turvy, Leigh’s first history film about 19th century popular art, generates its greatest dramatic tension by tracking ironic continuities between the performers’ backstage reality and onstage performance. We learn more about the physical hardships and economic vicissitudes of the Victorian theater than we do about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves; this is a masterpiece of dramatized social history.
Leigh values collaboration and community, sometimes at the expense of biographical particulars. While Mike Leigh gets more out of characterological surfaces than just about any storyteller in any genre I can think of, he provides little more interiority than a good painter, and much less than the great ones. I’m not sure I want to fault him too much for that, though, and there are major exceptions to this rule. There is nothing but interiority in the magnificent chamber piece of 2010, Another Year. And Timothy Spall is yet again perfect here as Turner, hermetically sealed but eloquent when he wants to be, and generally allowing actions to speak more than words.
Mr. Turner is not about acting, though Spall captures all the physicality, much of it fairly gross and uncomfortable, that Turner put into his art. But Mr. Turner feels like a director’s film, albeit one spectacularly supported by its cinematographer, Dick Pope. Telling stories of popular artists of the past in Topsy Turvy and Mr. Turner, Leigh has found a way to explore issues relating to culture, representation, and politics (the meaning of labor in particular), that arose more peripherally in his customary milieu, working-class life in modern English cities. Mr. Turner doesn’t explain Turner’s importance quite as clearly or movingly as Leigh accounts for Gilbert and Sullivan. However, as in Topsy Turvy, Mr. Turner reveals the blood, sweat (and again, weirdly) skin disease that seem to follow in the wake of making great art, popular and otherwise.
Making films about Gilbert, Sullivan, and Turner is also Mike Leigh’s choice, conscious or not, to become more publicly self-reflective. Biographers tell us that he spent time at art school, and while there liked to take his sketchbooks outside for inspiration “from the source.” Linking this practice to Leigh’s working technique of encouraging his actors to bring the findings of their own research into the development of plots and dialogues, Leigh scholars provide a clue about why Leigh might have been drawn to Turner, known for his heavy reliance, way ahead of his time, on the en plein air technique. A bigger clue, and one that finally does shed some light both on why we must care about Turner and Leigh’s appreciation for him, comes through its provocations, not about what art means, but about what making art, art as a process and a life’s work, means for artists themselves. In Turner’s late period, as much as our own, assumptions about culture, nature, society and technology were changing as rapidly and quickly as the English weather. Social change has always been in the foreground of Leigh’s films; it has been interesting, however, to watch him holding on to that commitment in own late career even as he has turned to historical, rather than contemporary, stories that awaken strongly individuated, non-collaborative intimations of mortality.
At its own most abstract level, though, Mr. Turner does tend to associate the urge to make art as a metaphor for the will to live, and it is ultimately less about communicating meanings through pictures than it is about the search for reasons to justify the impulse to make art, movies as well as paintings, in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is the first of Leigh’s film to be shot digitally. Of course, to refer to a movie shot digitally as a “film” is to employ a dead metonym. One can even argue that the kind of color layering and shading possible with digital editing is closer to painting than anything ever possible in film technology. What’s lost in sharpness and clarity—the possibility of film—turns out not to be all that bad a thing within the genre of the artist biopic. Dick Pope’s cinematography and post-production work emphasize the painterly quality of which digital imagery can be capable.
I would argue, though, that it’s editing that spares the audience from forgetting that images—painted, filmed, or pixilated—are manufactured illusions. At numerous moments in Mr. Turner we are forced to ponder whether we’re seeing a photograph of a landscape or a photograph of a painted landscape. Our feelings and our thoughts co-exist at such moments. This is a fine answer on Leigh’s part to the critics who faulted his early films of “social realism” for relying too heavily on bourgeois narrative conventions developed to conceal ideological messages. Thus, just as our attention is gracefully pulled between so “real life” to “performed life” in Topsy Turvy, so also Mr. Turner deliberately and productively estranges us from the illusionary nature of film and leads us to contemplate the labor normally hidden behind it.
The long, virtually wordless opening scene of the film makes it clear that the difference between a photograph and a painting, and then again the difference between a still image and a moving one, is inevitably an issue in any appraisal of Mr. Turner. Like a symphonic overture, the film’s opening shots establish the film’s recurring themes and questions. We see a postcard image of a place (Holland?), a picture perfectly composed. A windmill (the old-fashioned kind) set in front of a sinking sun. Everything is ochre save a bit of azure and white cloud higher in the sky. It’s not clear at first, but we soon discern movement within the frame; there’s a wind; the image is moving.
Soon we become conscious of sounds as well—mostly the muffled voices emanating from two distant figures approaching at a slight angle from the right. They are women, perhaps best friends, two women walking home at the end of the workday—we guess they are agricultural laborers from their costumes (also the old-fashioned kind—this must be the 18th/19th century). They are animated, moving their arms and laughing. As they come into the foreground, we realize they are speaking something non-English (Dutch?) and completely ignoring the small figure on the hill to the left. That figure seems to be completely still, but as the camera give it more attention we realize it (now a “he”) is moving a pencil or pen across a notebook in his hand, drawing the scene we have been watching, but seeing it from a slightly different angle. Somehow this artist, perhaps solely because he seems so steadfast in his solitude, occupies a place of privilege—not necessarily one of ownership but one that controls our own visual interpretation of the scene we have just watched. This guy got there before we did. This guy goes to work, he doesn’t leave it, at end of day, at what moviemakers call “golden hour” or “magic hour”—the time of day when light and atmosphere conspire to radiate the earth in a way that resembles . . . a painting by Turner.
“The sky [or sea] looks like a Turner”—how easily those words can come to mind at the end of a certain kind of day. What did people say about such days before Turner came along? Turner didn’t invent the beauty of windmills and peasant women on their way to a gambol after work. Such things pre-existed him in the work of painters he admired, especially Claude Lorraine and Poussin. We have been told by historians that no one in Europe appreciated the beauty of mountains before the Florentines discovered it in the Renaissance, and we have also been told that many people in the 18th century feared the sea. Turner’s sea paintings partake at times of the Sublime—beauty and fear—but just as often the beauty of Turner’s sea and landscapes is neither menacing nor awe-inspiring, it is simply sort of out of reach, as ephemeral as a breeze, as unique as a single wave. Nature is neither a place to own nor a place to fear. It is where we live, where we work, what we are.
Mike Leigh, in a recent interview, is quite laconic when he explains why he gave up on years of “being a Luddite” and accepted that digital filmmaking was here to stay. All the labs are closing. You have to accept history and historical change and be honest about it. (It is hard, by the way, to think of anything more Marxist than that). What else can you do?
One thing you can do is what the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did, and that is why, in my opinion, Leigh gives Turner a moment to gaze upon the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings and chortle with disbelief. Repulsed by modernity and machinery, the PRB tried to turn back to the clock—but that in itself did not make them counter-revolutionary. Ruskin, an ardent supporter of both Turner and slightly less ardent supporter of the PRB, saw the former as a Painter of Nature and Truth, but understood that the members of the PRB were seekers of a different kind of Truth, an immaterial one. It is very easy today to associate the PRB with the worst kind of Victorian kitsch melodrama and evocations of what Peter Brooks called the “moral occult,” but seen properly in their time they actually have more in common with Ruskin’s understanding of Turner than Leigh would probably grant. It is easy in retrospect to overlook how revolutionary they were because they made the very mistake Marx warns against in the opening of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: the French Revolutionaries defeated themselves, in part, by costuming themselves in the style of the ancient Romans. They ended up reinventing tyranny, just as surely as the PRB, with its ostensible rejection of the prettifications and city slicker ways of Raphael, ended up reinventing aestheticization.
The body of Turner’s work—and to a certain extent the body of Turner himself—could never be gussied up in yesterday’s modes. Whether his late work strayed from mimesis or achieved perfect mimesis, ultimately the message of his work is the work itself. Leigh includes a scene in which Turner refuses to sell his personal collection of his own work at a great price so that he might give it to England—and this collection still exists, in tact, at the Tate Britain. Seeing all of it at once is much more impressive than seeing a single Turner on its own; the power of the collected work pulls us toward an aesthetic that is more alert to the fact of labor than the search for hidden moral truth in the single image.
The long-term importance of Turner to modern art may lie less in the “Truth of Nature” (Ruskin’s phrase) than in what Turner may not have intended at all, an incredibly prescient embrace of abstraction (“He is trying to bring order to a chaotic universe,” one observer in Mr. Leigh exclaims, rather anachronistically to my ear). He employed the en plein air technique before the French Impressionists, and he maintained a sheer, simple willingness to just plain keep on keepin’ on in the face of the new visual technologies. And he acknowledged the body’s presence in artmaking from beginning to end. An important scene is that in which, before the eyes of his fellow Academy members, Turner attacks one of his own paintings with spit and sweat and pure muscle to bring it closer to his own idea of what it means to “finish” a painting. The result isn’t just abstraction, it’s approaching abstract expressionism.
The incorporation of the physical body as an element in his art is also displayed, with even bigger philosophical reverberation, in the film’s inclusion of an apocryphal event in Turner’s life, an incident in which he insisted upon having himself tied to the top of a ship’s mast during an ice storm. Why Leigh inserted this scene in the film was not at first apparent to me, but in retrospect it feels crucial. Behind the character he’s playing we see the human Spall looking physically battered by the snow and rain hitting his face in this scene. Let’s hope for Spall’s sake that this is more CGI than documentary footage. In an atmosphere of that much possible human pain, all in the name of exploring the purpose and practices of human art, this viewer can’t avoid thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer’s use of Homeric imagery to capture the essence of the Dialectic of Enlightenment: the figure of Ulysses chained to the mast, able to hear the sirens, the beauty of nature. This is the most terrible kind of alienation, but the only one we’ve got. Both enabled and disempowered by technology, the enlightened artist has no choice but to accept, and perhaps to come to know and exploit, the chains that bind him. They are the chains wherein he has chosen, because he has had no choice, to make his home.
There’s no place like home—no magical alternative within the present one, however strongly the PRB tried to invoke one—so you have to use it. Leigh’s earliest films may have tried to garb anti-capitalist messages within middle-class realist narrative form (as some of his critics used to complain, back in the ‘70’s and 80’s), but his later films, most obviously Happy Go Lucky and now Mr. Turner, show an acute awareness that eschewing popular forms for the sake of utopian content is itself a pretty dismal way to live.