Bright Lights Film Journal

“That’s something the viewer can choose to see.” An Interview with Mike Leigh on Mr. Turner

MIKE LEIGH: People have said to me, “Oh, I’m surprised Turner was like that, I would have thought he would be rather Byronic and beautiful and ascetic and nervously brilliant” and all those things, but, you know, he wasn’t. He was a practitioner who rolled up his sleeves and got down to it and made work, which is what we all do, we who are artists.

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“I find myself marveling at my own wealth of perception even at the early age of four.”

So says art critic painter John Ruskin in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. In a scene in his recent portrait of JMW Turner, Ruskin exudes self-satisfaction as he pontificates on the artist’s landscapes. A marked tension exists between the painter and his advocate that suggests a Turner whose output is being transformed, whose favored themes and intentions are either critically altered or ignored. When Ruskin looks at Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, in contrast to the artist – who very directly references the human loss in the tableau – the young critic waxes poetic on the sunset and interprets the piece to be about the endurance of hope.

The schism between Ruskin and Turner’s interpretations speaks to a film invested in challenging how the latter has been framed within the critical consensus, thematically and formally. Near the film’s opening, signaling his interest in humanity, Turner lists the paintings of the Old Masters that he viewed on a tour to Northern Europe –each a rendition of the human form. Indeed, every time Turner is faced with death, he sketches the female figure, as though it is the human and not nature that is sublime, a form as linked with mortality as with beauty. The film thus bucks the establishment view of Turner, which typically positions his work as largely and almost comically antithetical to the human form.

Moreover, Mr. Turner contains many allusions to the meta and proto-cinematic to uniquely posit the extensive and influential scope of the artist’s vision. Turner’s viewing room where the “darkness is to a purpose” resembles a movie theater, complete with projectionist’s peephole, and winks to the inherently cinematic dimension of his eye. Through Turner’s trips to a Daguerreotype maker, where he is fascinated by an emergent medium that can, according to its vendor “stand the test of time,” the mode of painting and photography are seen less in conflict than in dialogue with each other. Such an exchange, the film thus suggests, moves Turner toward abstraction as a presage of painting’s later response to photography.

As I interviewed director Mike Leigh, who showed a decided resistance to some of the readings described above, I could not help but see our conversation as a kind of absurd reenactment of Ruskin and Turner’s own interactions. I elaborated on scenes of the film, its compositions and themes, and Leigh very firmly questioned my key terms and assumptions. When I said that figures became huge in the frame, Leigh rightly corrected that the figures are seen in mid-shot. When I spoke of caricature in Mr. Turner, the filmmaker demanded both further definition of the idea and examples from the film. Leigh also asserted that Mr. Turner was not at all intended to speak of the distorting lens of criticism through the character of Ruskin.

Our brief phone interview forced us to sidestep conversational niceties and dive into questions. Leigh proved to be an incisive yet meditative subject, sparking a conversation that raised vital questions about the limits of interpretation and about how critical inquiry might shape an artist’s work.

FAREED BEN-YOUSEFF: A reading. The film opens with a Dutch landscape in the early morning. Women move into frame; Lawrence of Arabia-like they grow ever larger as the camera tracks toward them. There’s a tension of sorts when the camera finally turns to Turner. The artist is positioned toward the landscape, but the camera seems transfixed by the human. From the opening frame the film seems to suggest Turner’s investment in the human figure or that the human form (emphasized and seen with a certain despair by Turner) is central to the artist’s practice.

MIKE LEIGH: I think they get closer to the frame, but they’re not really huge. They turn into a mid-shot. My films anyway are about people and place, you know, humans and interaction with place. In this case, the landscape. It’s obviously an appropriate opening image for a film about a great landscape painter. We tried filming it at sunset or near sunset. We tried to get a Turner-esque flavor.

A reading. During a scene when Turner’s tied to the mast, the camera focuses less on the storm than on Turner. At a low angle he seems monumental as the camera cuts ever closer to him. Turner appears as the storm’s sublime center. The film pushes us here to find the sublime in the human.

Obviously it’s complex, and it’s slightly difficult to reduce it to a kind of intellectual formula. The fact is it is about a man embracing the elements in order to experience them. The elements are the elements. He could have been drowned. On the other hand, he has made the choice to [strap himself] on the mast.

On Turner as a “cinematic” painter:

What I meant by that, simply, he looks at the world, at the sea and the landscape and the skies in a visually dramatic way which stimulates, well let’s say a cinematic, not scientific, statement. It stimulates the cinematic juices, the cinematic impulse. It resonates, in other words . . . Turner’s paintings resonate with a sense of cinema which we filmmakers have.

But, like all my films, it’s all about man, mankind, people, and place, you know, and about time and hubris and about fate and human interaction. But it’s quite hard to intellectualize that.

On whether Mr. Turner, in its rendition of a visually minimalized Turner in the Royal Academy of Arts and in its portrayal of a verbose young John Ruskin, speaks to the distorting lens of criticism.

[Long pause] No. It definitely doesn’t. No thought was ever in my head of that nature. That wasn’t a consideration at all. People have talked about it on that basis, but it was never an idea. We interpreted what young Ruskin was like.

Joshua McGuire as Ruskin

A reading. Turner is framed from a high angle when entering the home of Ruskin or going into the Academy. Given there are so few spaces in which the camera looks down upon Turner, I wonder if the rarity of the visual diminution of the artist suggests the film’s indictment of criticism, adopting either the aloof look of his admirer or the judgmental gaze of his misunderstanding peers.

Actually, the high angles of the camera, I don’t think that has any significance. To try and extrapolate that kind of symbolism from those high angles, I think would be eccentric.

On Turner’s fascination with the emerging medium of photography:

Turner was fascinated by this new thing called photography. He also could see how it could affect painting. What I find interesting about Turner and photography is that he already conducted his evolution before he ever came across photography. He was already painting in a way that unconsciously anticipated the way painting would be affected by photography even before he discovered it.

As to the generalized question about painting versus photography, I think that’s kind of obvious. Turner obviously sees that it is both: an art form, an enriching medium in its own right, and also possibly a threat, you know. On the whole, his attitude is more intrigued and positive than negative, really.

We know that what Turner explored was expressing the world in terms of paint without the need to be ponderously academically literal, in his later work. What photography did was liberate artists in precisely that way because here was a technology that would do the job of being, as it were, literal, albeit a creative art in its own right. He obviously saw that. But, as I say, I think he was already on the case before photography came into his awareness.

On whether Leigh’s period pieces – both Mr. Turner, about an artist ready to donate his work to the British nation, and Topsy Turvy, about the practitioners of “low burlesque,” Gilbert and Sullivan – seek to resuscitate popular forms of entertainment:

Yes. I mean, I think that’s true. I think that’s very perceptive of you. I am intrigued by people, by artists who slave away at creating popular art. I take it very seriously.

Obviously the difference between Turner and Gilbert and Sullivan is that with Turner there was a man who took profoundly seriously the work . . . that just created profound work. Gilbert and Sullivan took profoundly seriously the job of creating relatively trivial work, although I think the music of Sullivan is to be taken very seriously as indeed are the lyrics of Gilbert. But you see all my films in some way or other are concerned with, on some level, issues related to the man on the street or the people.

Even though you’re looking at iconic artists, it is important that there’s a perspective, in both of those films, on this work from a popular point of view.

On whether Leigh considers the presence of caricature in the film (specifically in Timothy Spall’s lead performance) and his own understanding of himself as a caricaturist:

Timothy Spall as Turner

I think there’s a misunderstanding about caricature. I don’t think caricature is a way to describe a portrait in the film that you’re talking about. I think there are other films that I’ve made that do deploy a kind of caricature. Life Is Sweet does, High Hopes does. Earlier films, but I don’t think it would be in any way accurate to consider caricature in a context in either Mr. Turner or Topsy-Turvy or, indeed, any of my recent films.

A reading. The film features a dualistic performance from Spall, which, at times seems sharply caricatured, as though he is more animal than man. The film draws attention to this fact early on, as it presents a juxtaposition of the artist’s father shaving of a pig’s head against the father’s shaving of Turner:

It’s just an interesting juxtaposition. That’s not to say it’s caricature. That’s nothing to do with caricature. That’s life and, you know, juxtaposing things that happened side by side. I mean, there’s no caricature in that. His father shaves the pig and then he shaves him, but that . . . where’s the caricature?

Fareed: I thought it was drawing attention to the sort of bestial aspects or the more corporeal aspects within the façade of Turner.

Well, you know, that’s something the viewer can choose to see.

Ah, but that was not the intent.

No, no because you twist it.

Mike Leigh

On the film’s contradictory portrait of Turner:

Well, that’s the thing about the film. People have said to me, “Oh, I’m surprised Turner was like that, I would have thought he would be rather Byronic and beautiful and ascetic and nervously brilliant” and all those things, but, you know, he wasn’t. He was a practitioner who rolled up his sleeves and got down to it and made work, which is what we all do, we who are artists.

He was not, in my rendering of him, the embodiment of a kind of romantic ideal of an artist, you know. He’s somebody that does it, that does the business, does the work, wears out shoe leather, rolls up his sleeves, spits on the canvas, goes and buys the paint, all the rest of it.

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The conversation then came to a swift close as Leigh had to rush to a meeting. I wondered if in his closing comments about his efforts to transcend the romantic ideal of Turner, to present a vision of the artist who gets his hands dirty with the ingredients of his arts, Leigh expressed an inherent desire to be perceived outside of the romanticizing, intellectualizing lens of “the auteur.” How might our vision of Leigh and his own films shift if we were to view him as an artist invested in the visceral, in the popular? Furthermore, in the frustrations sparked by my line of inquiry in the filmmaker, can we glimpse a similar frustration that Turner espouses in the film? One where an artist’s work becomes crystallized in ways that seem disconcertingly at odds with his original aims? Where a film’s subtleties sit unseen or discarded by the narcissistic Ruskins of the world who privilege not the work in front of them but instead their own self-proclaimed “wealth of perception”?

Note: All images courtesy of Sony Pictures. No rights given or implied.