Magazine article Artforum International

Lust for Light

Magazine article Artforum International

Lust for Light

Article excerpt

FROM THE FIRST LONG SHOT of Mike Leigh's epic cinematic portrait of the landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, we are unmistakably in the presence of a master. His gaze fixed on the burning disk of the sun, Turner jots rough graphite notations in a sketchbook. His feet are firmly planted; his surly, porcine profile emerges from between the lapels of an ill-fitting frock coat.

A penetrating study of late style, Mr. Turner leads us through the last third of the painter's life, from the public triumphs of the 1820s to the experimental, nearly abstract works of the last years, when some thought he was mad. From the wordless introductory vignette of the middle-aged artist at the height of his powers to the wrenching deathbed scene a quarter century later, the film is dominated by Timothy Spa11's towering performance as Turner. The furrowed terrain of Spall's face conveys the widest imaginable compass of emotions. He emits a symphonic range of guttural noises, grunts, and snorts, expressing the fierce inarticulacy of a protean individual at odds with the genteel social codes of the day--the barber's son who rose to the pinnacle of the British art world and shattered every convention of landscape painting. Spa11's ungainly form embodies the artist's unruly creativity and his boundless self-belief: His eyes register Turner's every quicksilver shift from cruel egotism to profound human warmth.

The disparity between Turner's rarefied, exquisite paintings and his uncouth appearance and strange habits of speech constantly baffled his contemporaries. Spall allows us to see Turner as both social being and creative force: We soon become aware that, even at his roughest, Turner had, in the words of John Constable, "a wonderful range of mind." Spall chews and sucks on his words, enjoying each one to the full: In his surviving letters and poetry, as here, Turner employed the stilted, courtly vocabulary of the autodidact. The film's dialogue, as usual in a Mike Leigh production, has been developed through ensemble work with a group of actors over a long rehearsal period. Though not always quoted verbatim from the artist's correspondence or other remnants of his writing, every word nevertheless bears the stamp of both historical and emotional authenticity. To anyone who has attempted to navigate through the thickets of the artist's prose or encountered the fragments of his bathetic epic poem Fallacies of Hope, the malapropisms and misusages that litter his character's speech in Mr. Turner will hardly seem exaggerations concocted by the filmmaker for comedic effect.

Like Derek Jarman with Caravaggio (1986) and John Maybury with Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), Leigh and his estimable cinema- tographer Dick Pope have immersed themselves in their subject's visual idiom. They allow Turner's studies and sketches to suggest compositions and lighting schemes. Thus, at Petworth House, home of Turner's patron the third Earl of Egremont, the sunlight in the Old Library, which the artist used as a studio, is just as Turner noted it in a vibrant watercolor now at Tate Britain in London. Even the exaggerated, conical necks and dangling ringlets of the Regency-era ladies found in Turner's playful watercolor sketches of a musical soiree at East Cowes Castle in 1827 (also at the Tate) are echoed in the film's gently satiric costume design.

At Petworth, Leigh interjects a touching interaction between Turner and a woman of refinement but reduced circumstances (played sympathetically by Karina Fernandez), whom the painter encounters playing Beethoven, alone, on a fortepiano. Discovering a shared fondness for Henry Purcell, the two haltingly perform "Dido's Lament." The scene is an unforgettable cinematic tour de force: intimate, comic, profound. As the painter growls his way through the baroque elegy, the camera traverses the grand walls of Petworth, upon which his own landscapes vie with portraits by Van Dyck and Holbein, revealing the diminutive Cockney to have entered the pantheon of masters. …

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