On the Film "Mr. Turner"
Sherry Miller Review
From the first moment this film appeared to be the actors of Downton Abbey transported to San Francisco's Academy of Art College and coached by the faculty member who normally teaches brilliant Asian students to speak with correct accents. The Mr. Turner overdressed fashion plate characters seemed to indulge in every possible difficult accent from the British Isles. When they were not speaking incomprehensibly, haunting avant-garde music traced their steps – music that is fine on it's own but sounds bizarre in early 19th century Britain. After twenty minutes of the unintelligible sound track and the grunts of a Turner who could not possibly have looked like this actor, I wanted to leave the theater but stayed, believing the film could only get better.
But there was no improvement. In scene after scene of domestic life, family life, occasional sketching, and the pomp of the Royal Academy, plus shots of a few great houses of England, I did not learn anything about the artist Turner or his work or his creative development. Even his place in his world was presented as contradictions of achievement and humiliation and mockery. For me the most interesting scene in the whole movie was the purchase of pigments in the chemist's shop.
From the time I was sixteen Turner has been one of my favorite painters and a great inspiration. In 1966 I saw the first huge show in America of Turner's work at the Museum of Modern Art called Imagination and Reality. I recall attending several times and simply standing and looking at the paintings for as long as possible. But then in 1968 I went to the Tate in London. The Turners there were so spectacular, and so much more wonderful than what I had seen at MOMA, that I required little else to make that three month trip a success.
On that same trip we settled for six weeks on Exmoor in Devon, in a little cottage high on the moor overlooking the Bristol Channel. And there I discovered that Turner had not painted from a great philosophical theory of art and color. He painted what he saw. The changing weather of fog, mist, clouds, filtered sunlight and soft wind that is the daily scene over the Bristol Channel is exactly what appears in Turner's paintings. (I just now looked up his biography and indeed he did go there as a young man.)
I try to imagine inspiring a young art student with the work of Turner. What a horrendous job that would be if the artist, at the beginning of her career, had to sit through the gruesome, morbid, sexually brutal portrayal of Mr. Turner. How would one recover and then enjoy the reverance and sublime appreciation this artist deserves?