With the Golden Globes tonight, I’m trying to think of my favorite films of the year. All I can fixate on, however, were the ones I disliked. One in particular has continued to annoy me even though I saw it over a week ago:
Here’s the trailer for those of you unfamiliar:
Intrigued? Falling asleep? Upon seeing the trailer and reading about the film I was the former, but 30 minutes into the feature I was wishing I was the latter.
I don’t get it. I had all the necessary prerequisites to love this film: I am art historian with a major soft spot for 19th century British painting (and spend quite a bit of time in my surveys discussing JMW Turner’s work), and I’m a HUGE fan of British period dramas (gasping and tweeting things that end in #DowntonAbbey will completely take me away from the Globes this evening). But still, I absolutely hated this film. Not This Is the End hated, but still, hated.
I think one of the main reasons for my contempt was the film’s absolute indifference to painting. This isn’t to say it was indifferent to art–there were many moments where we as an audience were meant to read Spall’s performance as “inspired” and his paintings as “superior” to his colleagues. What I mean is that this film was completely indifferent to the medium of painting itself and its ability to transfix and transform both the viewer and the maker. The at times beautiful cinematography occasionally mimicked Turner’s paintings, but that is still not what I’m talking about. The canvases are rendered inert objects in this film without any life or vibrancy of their own. I think this was done in favor of depicting the man and the time. While it was by all estimations a fairly accurate portrayal of mid-19th century England as well as of Turner’s incredibly prolific output and work ethic, it failed to tell any story at all. It wasn’t really a movie.
Mr. Turner lacked any discernible plot or conflict and instead burdened the viewer with 2.5 hours of esteemed British actor Timothy Spall, OBE spitting and grunting in his portrayal of the master. Not to knock Spall, he’s a great actor and very believable as the incredibly unlikable character that was written for him, but I fail to see how this absurdist improvisation required a visit to the artist’s grave at St. Paul’s. Furthermore, as painting was so ancillary to this film’s pointless slog through time, learning to paint hardly seemed necessary either.
Now one reaction to my criticism to the film’s complete lack of narrative or central conflict would be its fidelity to source material. “Painter’s lives maybe aren’t that interesting” my dad pointed out in response to my intensely negative reaction to the film. However, as the Huffington Post reveals, Mike Leigh freely admits that two of the film’s most impression-leaving moments (I dare say, perhaps the only plot in the whole thing) were completely fabricated (!!!): Turner’s sexual assault of his dim-witted maid (a cringe-inducing scene who’s slight smile at the end would give the “legitimate rape” scumbags from Congress a fraking field day), and the artist’s tethering himself to the bough of a ship in a storm for inspiration for Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840) (a scene that the film insinuates leads to the sickness that ultimately caused his death and a painting whose abolitionist message was completely omitted from the film). I should also mention that there is no evidence that Turner spit on his canvases…and basic science (water does not mix with oil) also disproves this, though it was integral to Spall’s depiction of the master’s process and iconoclasm.
Given these massive inventions, it would seem verisimilitude or historical accuracy were certainly NOT the deterrents to generating a plot. So then what gives? Why did critics swoon over this film? Why does the British press think its absence from BAFTA nominations was a slam at Mike Leigh not a reflection of it being a shitty movie? Why were the people seated behind me at the upscale Northern Virginia Angelika theater laughing at completely lame attempts to ridicule the famed critic John Ruskin with a droll discussion of fruit? I AM AN ART HISTORIAN AND AN ANGLOPHILE, goddamit, so why didn’t I like this movie??? My hatred for this film makes me feel as though I’m in the twilight episode where suddenly everyone’s a pig. Am I really a plebian in an art historian’s clothes? Do I really not “get” culture?
Or perhaps its precisely my decades-long fascination with art and its histories that lead me to hate this film for all its soporific pretension. Perhaps those who loved this film’s “luminous” depiction of Turner simply haven’t had real encounters with the very real luminosity of his paintings. If that is true, I urge you take a cue from one of my old professors Jennifer Roberts and spend the time you would have spent watching this film in front of a painting.
Here’s hoping you had better cinematic experiences in 2014.