I first saw this back in January on the last day before it finally left theaters for good, only to find the showing packed and ultimately sold out. Visiting my parents in Florida a few months later, we find it at the second-run theater and the only thing they haven’t seen… so I kept mum that I had already seen it and that it is almost three hours and extremely slow and naturalistic with unattractive actors and virtually no plot… And I watched for the second time what is definitely one of the best, most visually transporting and emotionally-moving movies of last year.
It’s a Mike Leigh movie, so it is very naturalistic, with scenes that have no obvious beginning or end, and do not clearly drive the plot, because there is no plot. This is a biography of the British painter J.M.W. Turner, so what we get instead of plot are a bunch of fascinating scenes from his life, that together and over time start to form an overall portrait, and connecting events begin to accrue into sustained narratives that never seem to be “the point” of the movie, but provide momentum and eventually become terribly emotionally affecting. The movie doesn’t introduce characters or settings or carefully draw connections between them; you have to stay on your toes and figure who and what they are for yourself. On the one hand, Leigh doesn’t manipulate you as obviously as most movies, and as a result, the emotional effects he gains seem more honestly earned and genuinely coaxed forth—not wrenched—from your heart.
One thing that is impossible to miss is that the movie features gorgeous cinematography that attempts to recreate the look of 18th and 19th-century paintings. You’ll be sitting there thinking you kind of recognize the specific paintings numerous shots are trying to emulate, without being able to name or place them. But it’s not just the form of the shots that looks like paintings, it is also simply the content of what he is showing that evokes them. The point is: gorgeous movie.
The other thing I really appreciated about the film is that an attempt is made to truly show us people from another time—socialized at a different point in history—not just contemporary actors, with contemporary manners and a touch of an accent, in costume. A full third of Timothy Spall’s communication as Turner is comprised of grunts, groans, and growls. Dorothy Atkinson, as his housekeeper, Hannah, appears to have the mental level of a chimpanzee—which is not an insult, just to say that she is uneducated and quite simple. The characters speak slowly and with care—they aren’t waiting for cellphones to ring or something more exciting to happen. They have no cynical irony. They all seem to have been raised and live in a world where life happens very slowly [by our standards], and thus truly seem like people from a different time.
SPOILERS > > >
The movie is also smart about painting, and doesn’t spell things out. For example, at one of the academy shows, a Turner is right next to a Constable. The painter Constable is there, touching up his painting even after the exhibition opens. He is working on a painting that places bright red against a cool gray and bluish background, the gimmick of the painting being this contrast between hot color and cool background. Turner’s painting is also largely cool blues and grays, and after the exhibition opens, he waltzes in an puts a blob of bright red paint right in the middle of his painting. Constable stands up and storms out, realizing that Turner has stolen his gimmick right in front of him, and done it with much greater wit and economy. The movie just shows it, and doesn’t spell it out, but anyone who has painted or worked with colors would have a sense of what just happened, and the great slap in the face delivered here.
Atkinson as Hannah is Turner’s housekeeper and also, we see, occasional sexual outlet. Early in the film we see her allow Turner to grab her breast and feel between her legs. She clearly feels that she has a somewhat privileged place with Turner and enjoys her service to him and his muted appreciation. Twice in the film his former wife appears with their daughters and granddaughters, whom he apparently has abandoned without any money or even recognition. The wife demands that he hear about their poverty and pushes in his face that he is ignoring his responsibility, but he regards her as just a pain in the ass and sends her back on her way. When he is later asked if he has any children and he says no, we have a shot of Hannah silently noticing his lie.
Later, Hannah is about the house when Turner comes up, lifts up her skirt and takes her from behind, grunting on her for a few seconds. When he’s done, the way she nuzzles her face toward his indicates that she wants affection and tenderness with him, but he simply walks away. Still, she is smiling and seems to have enjoyed… the attention, if not the experience. I mention all this because the second half of the film is largely made up of Turner’s middle-age romance with a charming widower, Mrs. Booth. Their romance is completely sweet, believable and utterly beautiful, and proceeds in a very involving and moving way.
But Leigh keeps Hannah as the bitter tinge around the edge of the picture. We forget her for a while, while we get lost in the Turner-Booth romance, and don’t really even think about whether she would be bothered that he’s gone. But toward the end, she is growing older and succumbing to illness, while still there in his house, taking care of his things for the occasional visit. She finds a letter in his pocket, and realizes that he has actually moved out and taken up residence somewhere else! At this time, the echoes of him abandoning his wife and children come back, and even Hannah reacting to his abandoning them… while she’s realizing it’s now happening to her. We return to Turner and his new romance, and his growing illness, and his last moments on his deathbed… but Leigh chooses to end the film with an image of the forgotten Hannah, frail and alone and perhaps a touch demented, completely abandoned by our great painter protagonist.
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So it’s a great film. The performances, script, direction and cinematography are all virtually perfect. It is very intelligent and interesting [if you still have an attention span and find Romantic painters interesting] and is slow, but not boring. You just let go and let it unfold and get lost in it. It’s not the kind of thing one is always in the mood for, but if you are in the mood [or can let it put you in the mood], it is almost impossible not to appreciate.