Biopics have proven to be notoriously difficult to make in an engaging way. They often tend to either flatten their subjects into one-dimensional portrayals of absolute good as The Theory of Everything (2014) does with Stephen Hawking and 42 (2013) similarly fashions Jackie Robinson or, more rarely, as the embodiment of utter depravity as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) does with Jordan Belfort. Although most biopics fall somewhat between these two tendencies, they nonetheless normally idealize their main characters by only briefly gesturing towards their flaws or psychological issues: Get On Up (2014) in minimizing James Brown’s domestic abuse, Luther (2003) in omitting how Martin Luther saw visions of god while on the privy, Malcom X (1992) in addressing Malcolm’s dysfunctional relationship with Betty Shabazz, Amadeus (1984) in presenting playfully his abusive relationship with his wife, and so on for many more films. Many biopics are good, but few are great.
By far one of the most successful approaches employed by recent biopics is the presenting of its subject at a distance as can be found in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008). In these films, we never enter Antoinette’s or Che’s mind; instead, we observe them from a critical distance. Similarly, their pasts often haunt them, but are rarely revealed to viewers through flashbacks. Instead, the trauma of the past is obliquely indicated through partial conversations and their characters’ inconspicuous actions. Such biopics present a sketch of a person where viewers must infer the details between the lines.
Mr. Turner also adopts a distanced approach towards its subject, the famous nineteenth-century British painter J.M.W. Turner. Much of the two-and-a-half hour screen time, Turner (Timothy Spall) simply grunts to those around him, treating them more as inconveniences towards his work rather than as people who care about him. For example, his maid, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who dotes on Turner by assisting him with his work and occasionally serves as a sexual outlet, asks him, “How was your trip?” His only reply is: “Dirty water”, as he points to a bowl full of paint brushes, expecting her to fetch clean water immediately. At such moments, he seems less human and more ape with his constantly furrowed brow, hunched back, and nearly indecipherable comments. Even his method of painting seems barbaric: he spits on the canvass aggressively, rubbing it in and blowing pigments across wet paint. Of course, much of this technique is Turner’s crafty way of entertaining future buyers of his work as they observe him “at work”.
In contrast to such moments, the film reveals Turner’s closeness to his father (Paul Jesson) and Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a woman he lives with later in life. But even in these relationships Turner’s emotions remain guarded. While witnessing his father’s bedside death, Turner only allows one tear to fall before quickly rubbing it off and getting back to business. Tellingly, he only grieves for his father within a whorehouse where he starts sobbing uncontrollably before a prostitute that he has directed to partially undress and sit seductively on her bed while he sketches her. The sequence rather obviously reveals how Turner sublimates his emotions through his art. Only before a perfect stranger can he allow his mask to fall and only through the alibi of sketching a character can Turner vaguely recognize his lustful desires.
But in spite of his seeming cluelessness about human relations, Turner rather deftly negotiates the 19th century art scene. He quietly suffers and encourages his patron’s often simplistic understanding of art. For example, when attempting to sell a painting to the Ruskins, Turner must endure John Ruskin’s (Joshua McGuire) endless prattle about Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On. Turner initially attempts to explain the work in his typically economical way: “Typhus epidemic amongst the cargo. Slaves die on board. No insurance. Sling them in the drink. Drowned dead. Cash.” But rather than dealing with the catastrophe such a painting presents, Ruskin instead soliloquizes about its formal properties: “I am struck by the column of bright light placed precisely off-center here, applied over the darkened background impasto, contrasting with the scarlet and ocher hues in the upper-left corner, which in turn contrasts with the presence of God, revealing to us that hope exists, even in the most turbulent and illimitable of deaths.”
Turner’s terse but direct speech that captures the brutality of the painting contrasts dramatically with Ruskin’s loquacious observation that evades such pictorial violence with a torrent of words and the projection of hope onto a painting that presents humanity at its most base and irredeemable. As British art historian John Berger observes, Turner’s later paintings “are as if about the aftermath of crime. And what is so disturbing about them — what actually allows them to be seen as beautiful — is not the guilt but the global indifference that they record” (John Berger, Selected Essays 339).
The film takes pains in showing Turner negotiating an ever-fickle public that appreciates his more traditional paintings’ formal qualities but remains indifferent to the suffering, chaos, and violence they depict. Ruskin, we will learn later, hangs the Slavers painting outside his breakfast nook: “where I have the good fortune to be greeted every morning.” The fact that such catastrophe can greet Ruskin every morning and not disturb his appetite reinforces Turner’s bleak outlook on humanity, which he sees as nothing more than a pack of dogs that can stand upright.
As Turner’s works become increasingly less figurative and more abstract representations of light and movement, his popularity wanes. It is as if he stripped the veneer of civilization from the canvass to expose the utter depravity and maelstrom of suffering that the Industrial Age ushered in. Berger astutely notes that the light that Turner “thought of as devouring the whole visible world was very similar to the new productive energy which was challenging and destroying all previous ideas about wealth, distance, human labour, the city, nature, the will of god, children, time” (338). The paintings became direct translations of such uncertainty, stripped of recognizable landscapes that rich patrons could use as buffers to avoid the cruelty and violence that simmered just beneath their imagery.
Mr. Turner, needless to say, is less concerned with Turner’s translation of the forces of the Industrial Age on his canvasses than with his personal biography. Only through his fraught relationship with Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage), a painter constantly rejected by the Royal Academy in his refusal to appease their bourgeois tastes both through his paintings and personal behavior, can we see Turner’s own ambivalences towards his patrons and wider middle-class culture. Haydon charges the Academy’s members during a public outburst: “I have no respect for you… Remove me from your nest of portrait painters! What does it do to elevate the art?” He engages in a scuffle before being forcibly removed from the gallery. All the while, Turner stands alone off-screen observing the encounter, neither coming to the defense of Haydon nor the Royal Academy. His physical distance manifests his psychological distance he holds towards both sides. His later paintings embody the type of experimentation and ingenuity that Haydon advocates. Yet Turner desperately wanted to remain in the good stead of the Royal Academy and not directly offend its sensibilities.
Mr. Turner speaks to the inherent difficulties of navigating the art world. Although one wants to be true to one’s craft and vision, this must always be mitigated with concerns for commerce and appealing popular tastes if one wants to remain a fully employed artist in a capitalist age. Turner’s use of painting to both translate the atrocities of the Industrial Age on the canvass and sublimate his own desires reveals the film’s deft ability to show how political and personal tendencies converge in art.
The connection between Turner’s time and our own is made readily apparent in the cinematography of Dick Pope, who actually frames certain exterior scenes as if directly from a Turner painting. Director Mike Leigh further notes during an interview within the Blu-ray’s skimpy extras: “The entire film is informed by Turner’s palette.” As a result, one can see Turner’s own struggles between art and commerce not unlike Mike Leigh’s difficulties of being a director of art films in the age of the blockbuster.
Elsewhere, we learn during a DVD extra that it took Leigh 15 years to get the financing to make Mr. Turner possible. Turner’s popularity might have long waned with the general public, but the battles regarding artistic vision maintaining its integrity within a sea of commerce have only intensified. Mr. Turner provides a homage to another kindred spirit of a prior age that in many ways anticipates our own.