There are many reasons to laud Mike Leigh’s film, “Mr. Turner.” The cinematography is excellent. The film spans the period from the English Regency to the Crystal Palace, the first half of the 19th century, with great verisimilitude. The acting, especially Timothy Spall as Turner, Paul Jesson as his Dad and Marion Bailey as Turner’s companion, is exemplary. We are happily submerged into a period piece which strikes no false notes. J.M.W. Turner was the son of a barber. He would achieve enormous social and artistic success. Leigh presents a biography.
We are also presented with a self-conscious examination of a vital piece of the history of science. Science was styled “natural philosophy.” Historians assert that the explosion of technology triggered by the industrial revolution, so closely identified with Great Britain, had already started before Turner’s birth (1775). In Turner’s lifetime, the stage coach, the barouche, and the phaeton were replaced by the steam driven locomotive. On his death bed, Turner can speak of the glimmering Crystal Palace (1851), the brainchild of Prince Albert, and the wonders it contains. Queen Victoria may have disdained Turner’s canvases as displeasing to the royal taste, but contemporary artists and patrons had no hesitation on proclaiming his mastery.
What did he master? He sought to represent light, change and motion on his canvases. One of his frequent subjects was the atmosphere: thunderstorms, snowstorms, sunrises and sunsets. He wandered the landscape of Wales, England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland in search of the sublime. He was the consummate observer. He not only reflected his sketches of nature on his canvases, he investigated the nature of light.
Mike Leigh brings Mary Somerville, the well-known mathematician, to visit Turner’s studio. A well-born Scottish woman, she acquired an education by stealth. She sat in on her brother’s lessons and exceeded him in the study of mathematics. Forbidden by her parents to continue studying on her own, discouraged by her first husband, but widowed at age 27, she now had control over her own money. A felicitous second marriage with a husband who supported her studies allowed her to advance her studies in mathematics. In 1825, at age 45, she published her first book: “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum.”
The Turner we see here is thus not only a man who only studied nature in the raw (tied to a ship’s mast in a raging storm), but a man interested in the systematic study of light. The term “scientist” was coined to describe Mary Somerville’s work after the publication in 1834 of “On the Connexion of the Sciences.” It is a term which may also encompass the taciturn Turner whose craft was to capture the light that Mary Somerville investigated.
The camera. Was this odd device going to challenge Turner’s canvases? He had his photograph taken in the 1840’s. Glaring balefully at the small lens, Turner grunts that it may do the job better than he could. But Turner’s work was never going to be the super-realism which the camera produced. The mechanical device will have its uses, but Turner’s canvases team with an intelligence that exceeds the daguerreotype’s image. The camera froze an instant in time; Turner captured motion and change.
The sublime landscapes that Turner visited were also visited by another illustrious Englishman, Charles Lyell. Independently wealthy, unenthused by his profession as a lawyer, Lyell turned his attention to geology. Those fantastic cliffs and striated rock formations which cinematographer Dick Pope flourishes in “Mr. Turner” form the basis for both art and science. Lyell published his seminal work, Principles of Geology, in 1830. Where Turner captured an atmospheric phenomenon, Lyell captured deep time. It is Lyell’s work that introduced the notion that the earth has existed over enormously long eras. It is Lyell’s work that would give Charles Darwin the concept of time enough to actually accomplish the task of the evolution of life on earth.
Turner’s life span, 1775-1851, encompasses the birth of the modern. New attitudes, scientific attitudes, developed. Technology began that explosive growth which it has continued into the present day. Turner’s entrepreneurial work habits as well as his genius as the premier English painter are reflected in Mike Leigh’s film. Implicitly he shows Turner present at the birth of modern science. The director moves his subject at the decorous pace of early 19th century time, that is, slowly. But he moves him through a protean landscape. It is well worth our time to enter into this dazzling film.