Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Directed by Mike Leigh
I read one blurb that called this film an “epic biography” of British painter William Turner. Well, that’s hype of the most grandiose favor. This film is not a biography at all. It would be stretching it to call it even a portrait. It is more of a sketch, and a rather superficial one at that. William Turner is the dominant figure in the film and he is played superbly by Timothy Spall. It is his rendering of Turner’s character that holds this rather disconnected, aimless film together and prevents it from falling apart into an amorphous nothing. He is almost always on screen. There is hardly a time when he isn’t. Because he is such an imposing presence, you do get a feel for Turner’s personality, at least in this conception (whether it has anything to do with reality, I do not know. I take the film at face value). I suppose the way I should say it is that it is a supremely convincing portrayal. The cinematography is exquisite. Every scene is perfectly composed, perfectly lit. England in the nineteenth century must have been a wonderful clean, neat, orderly place with everything properly arranged, minimal clutter, and people wearing clean clothes all the time and smelling so good.
The problem with this film is that it lacks depth and insight. We don’t see what is driving Turner in any aspect of his life, whether it is his painting, or his relations with his women, or within himself. He has an ex-wife or mistress with whom he had two grown daughters, who hate him bitterly — a feeling he reciprocates. What’s that about? He has an apparently long established relationship with his housekeeper. But he leaves her for a new woman who rented a room to him on a painting excursion. Why did he do this? He does seem to have a positive, supportive relationship with his father, with whom he was living until his father’s death. He belonged to some sort of society of fellow painters among whom he was highly regarded. His life overlapped the early days of photography, and he had a portrait taken of himself with his last mistress, the landlady. He seemed to think photography boded ill for him as a painter, but neither his interest in photography nor his attitude toward it are explored in any great detail.
This is about all you find out about William Turner from this film. It is not a lot for a two hour and forty minute session. It is slow moving with an absolute minimum of “action.” It avoids becoming tedious or boring, at least for me, strictly on the strength of Timothy Spall’s riveting performance. He makes this character come to life enough that you don’t mind staying with it for over two hours even though nothing is happening and you are not getting a very full or satisfying treatment of the subject. It’s not all bad, but I can’t recommend it unless you have an exceptional interest in nineteenth century painting. But if you are that type of person, you probably won’t learn very much from this film.