Mr Turner’s inaccuracies

Mike Leigh’s film of Turner’s later years is almost always lovely, occasionally very touching,  and often instructive. But some of its assumptions and presumptions are amazingly and even ruinously impertinent……


Mike Leigh tells us that his film isn’t a documentary, and “Turner nuts” aren’t his concern. Well, I’m not a “Turner nut” and in recent years I have found myself less enthralled by the painter’s later wishy-washiness than I once was. All the same, I thought the film was much better than I dared expect, and all the more spoiled by some sillinesses that I thought very typical of Mr Leigh.

I have form, here. I am in the camp that finds Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May to be unpleasantly patronising to perfectly decent people (though in pushy suburbanites and bossy campers the film-maker was certainly aiming to satirise very different types). I thought Vera Drake was patronising to the abortionist: doubtless these were tough, kindly, knowing, clever, profit-seeking, stupid, efficient, inefficient, exploitative and exploiting by turns, and of them would have been worth a powerful, nuanced, shaded, conflicted account. But in Vera Drake, I thought, we got agit prop of some kind; class war by other means.

In Mr Turner we had a painstaking reconstruction of Turner’ milieu. We had amusingly theatrical and decently appropriate accounts of Turner and his Royal Academy friends and opponents. We could probably have stomached an exaggerated account of his grunts and groans. We had a nice sense of a working class boy who loved the classics and mangled the subtler reaches of English diction. We were even decently led toward the idea of a Georgian youth who becomes a Victorian oddity.

All fine. So why give us a picture of a screwed-up sexuality which so far as I know is not suggested anywhere else. (There is no hint of this stuff in Eric Shane’s potted biography for The Turner Society.) And why portray Sarah Danby, Turner’s housekeeper and maybe his mistress, as an occasional grotesque and an occasional simpleton? It looked like a sub-Dickensian caricature, and pointless. The idea works against the film’s plausibility, even for people who know nothing about Turner. It just isn’t that probable, and is improbable on several counts. The idea isn’t even dramatically exciting.

A word or two on why this matters, if you’re interested. Mr Leigh’s film is worth watching, because its faults are just a few negatives in a sea of positives. It doesn’t claim to be documentary, so truthfulness is said not to be in question. (Though if I were Mr Leigh I would worry that even my portrayal of Turner’s painting techniques are thought by at least one expert to play to wrong-headed anachronism.) Well, I think it all matters because I thought the film lacked emotional truth, and so here was at least one bit of an audience which withheld the suspension of disbelief.

It is possible, just, that Mike Leigh’s inaccuracies made the film more emotionally true to lots of audience members who would not have liked a brighter Sarah Danby, and so losing my approval didn’t matter compared to gaining their’s. I can’t see how that would work, really, but still….

I also worry, more importantly, that when a film cashes in on the lives of real people, dead or alive, there is a duty to pay respect to what we know or can reasonably guess of those people.

I have no idea what idea, quirk, agenda or mission Mr Leigh sought to advance by his take on Turner’s relationship with Sarah Danby. But I can say it confirmed my view of his being a flawed genius. I mean, Mr Leigh’s flawed genius, not Mr Turner’s, whose flaws probably went unexplored in this film, which was rather good on his genius.

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Publication date

17 January 2015


On art; On movies