I think it’s one of the best biopics I’ve seen in a long time. It was understated. I appreciated that I wasn’t hit over the head with explanations for why Turner was how he was. He was merely presented with all of his massive contradictions for us to take him or leave him, just as he presented his paintings to the Academy, to be taken or left as is.
Today I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Timothy Spall, the actor who portrays J.M.W. Turner in the movie Mr. Turner. Terry Gross asks Spall if he thinks Turner was “somewhere on the Autism spectrum” because the artist was “completely lacking in social skills,” was obsessed with his work, at times sexually exploited his housekeeper, and did not show love or affection to his adult daughters. I was amazed that Gross perceived Spall’s portrayal of Turner as someone who could possibly be on the autism spectrum! While the man obviously struggled with expressing his emotions in words, we are talking about one of the greatest Romantic artists. Romanticism was all about expressing emotion and it is impossible to look at one of Turner’s landscapes without being bowled over by it. I thought Spall’s performance portrayed a man with a great deal of powerful and deep emotion beneath the surface. Turner was implosive, as Spall said, though he pointed out various scenes in the movie where Turner’s strong feelings were obvious. Turner also had a close and loving relationship with a woman in his later life. The fact that he sexually exploited his housekeeper, who was in love with him, does not mean that he was incapable of love. Nor does it mean, as Spall pointed out, that there was not some element of love in that relationship. This is evident in a scene between them when the housekeeper remarks that she may as well not change the sheets because he so seldom sleeps at his house anymore. You can see in Turner’s reaction that does understand social cues and that he empathizes with her. He tells her nothing of Mrs. Booth because he knows it would hurt her.
So have we reached the point where we have to diagnose everyone who is obsessed with their work and doesn’t talk glibly about their feelings as being “on the spectrum?”
Spall’s performance was masterful. He never ceased to be fascinating to watch and listen to, even with all the grunting and growling. (Actually, I think we should bring grunting back.) As unpleasant as Spall made Turner at times, I think he also made him lovable. Sometimes he was downright adorable, like when he sings along with “Dido’s Lament.” I was interested to learn that Spall took fine art lessons for over two years to prepare for the roll. From his Fresh Air interview he seems amusing and smart. I smiled at his definitions of the Sublime and Romantic movements in art as not having to do with describing a piece of cheesecake or “if you’re lucky, a weekend in Paris,” respectively. I was touched by the affection he expressed for his friend, who died the day before the interview.
Every scene in the movie was gorgeous and appealing to the senses. It made my fingers ache with desire to touch things, like that lovely yellow paint the elder Mr. Turner was mixing. If I were to make a movie, I hope it would be highly tactile.
While I was in London last month I went to the Tate Britain’s Late Turner–Painting Set Free exhibition, focusing on the work the painter did after age 60, when everyone thought he was going senile. It’s sad how we judge older people. Now, seventy years later, we can look back and say that Turner was not senile, he was just moving toward modernism. He was being more hip than the youngsters who dismissed him. I don’t care for some of his paintings, but I don’t blame that on the painter being old.
Some of the paintings I really loved, like “Peace, Burial at Sea:”
Who knows why “The Fighting Temeriare,” once voted as the painting best-loved by the British people, was not at the exhibition. Turner painted it at age 64. There is a marvelous scene in Mr. Turner based on that painting.