Artist biopics: like watching paint dry?
They certainly don’t have to be, and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is a shining example
Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallard William Turner in ‘Mr Turner’
You could be forgiven for thinking that the visual arts and cinema were made for each other. And there are some great films about artists, fictionalised to a greater or lesser extent.
Still, for the most part, even in the better artist biopics, the complexities of life, work and context are distilled into a convenient narrative arc. More often than not, the template is based on the romantic conception of the artist as a misunderstood, tortured genius, an outsider, regardless of how relevant that might be. And the actual work tends to be relegated to prop status.
Even the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer is romanticised, in both senses of the term, in the film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. The fact that it is oddly at variance with the character of Vermeer’s paintings didn’t hurt the film at the box office, but the bottom line is that it offers zero insight into the artist’s sensibility and stunning creative achievement, and leaves a formidable cast curiously adrift, with very little to do.
This isn’t to say that documentary accuracy is paramount. One of the best films about the creative process is Andrei Tarkovsky’s visually ravishing Andrei Rublev, which offers a highly fictionalised account of the medieval icon painter’s period of exile from his own work and ends with his return to it – the only section of the film in colour. Sheer lack of biographical data gave Tarkovsky scope for invention.
The Julie Taymor-directed biopic Frida, starring and co-produced by Salma Hayek, is an ambitious and impressive attempt to tell the story of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Scrupulously detailed, it resorts to hectic, newsreel shorthand to cope with the sheer volume of information it tries to impart.
Given film’s apparent predilection for Romantic artistic archetypes, Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews and opens in Irish cinemas on October 31st, might be said to enjoy an inbuilt advantage. Its subject is the greatest ever British Romantic landscape artist, easily on a par with his continental contemporary Caspar David Friedrich. In fact Joseph Mallard William Turner, especially in his later work, transcended Romanticism and anticipated developments in 20th-century abstraction.
Leigh’s film focuses on the final 25 years of Turner’s life, a canny decision in terms of drama given that those were the years when the chickens came home to roost. That is, Turner was faced with the consequences of the way he had managed his affairs in terms of ruthless self-interest, blending personal and professional concerns in one seamless but fragile package. His problems were compounded by advancing age, looming health issues and changing artistic fashions, giving an elegiac mood to the whole enterprise.
Inevitably, Leigh selects, simplifies, omits and invents, although he sticks closely to what is more or less known, or at least accepted, of the artist’s life. Stylistically, he takes a Dickensian approach, brilliantly embodied in artfully mannered performances by key cast members, including Timothy Spall as Turner, Dorothy Atkinson as his housekeeper Hannah Danby, and an inspired Paul Jesson as his adored and adoring father, William.
Judged purely on its first half or so – and it’s a lengthy 149 minutes in all – Mr Turner is quite superb. Its tone becomes notably less certain in its latter stages, when it becomes more episodically schematic, but it’s still an amazing achievement.
Going by most reliable sources, the portrait of Turner that emerges is pretty sound. There were several layers to his personal life. He had a reputation for secrecy, partly deserved but also probably exaggerated, as one of his biographers, James Hamilton, has argued. Partly through the actions of his executors, including John Ruskin, and partly through unhappy accident, vast amounts of primary material relating to his life were lost.
Where such material survives, Hamilton points out, in terms of documentation and correspondence Turner is exceptionally forthcoming and frank.
Turner was steeped in classical and biblical literature, and that comes through in Leigh’s script. Though his accent was pure Cockney, his speech was littered with literary references, and Spall captures that well. He nurtured and valued many deep personal friendships throughout his life and was extremely social and convivial. He was closely interested in scientific developments.
He had a knack, by no means peculiar to him, for surrounding himself with people who willingly dealt with his various practical needs, including his father who, when he retired as a successful barber, became his son’s “willing slave”, stretching canvases, buying and mixing paints and maintaining his garden.
Turner’s attitude to the women who were close and related to him is problematic. Leigh takes a perhaps overly harsh view, while tending to the opposite direction in relation to other ambiguities with regards to slavery and philanthropy. Reputedly mean, Turner was certainly cautious financially. Besides running his artistic practice as an extremely successful business, he owned several properties and managed them carefully. He had architectural training and designed his own gallery and country house.
As with all artist biopics, there remains the issue of the work. Turner was fantastically prolific. His art took precedence over everyone and everything in his life. His sketchbooks alone are breathtaking. Such productivity meant that he was working most of the time, and to actually watch an artist working is like watching paint dry.
In the end, if you want to know what Turner was about, look at his paintings. Leigh’s film encourages us to do just that.