Before viewing Mr Turner, I had read and heard almost universally positive views of the film. What was it that produced such unconditional praise?
Partly, I suspect, because the film appeals through visceral rather than intellectual means. That is not to deny an exceptional level of intelligence behind its creation and delivery. My point is that we risk being dazzled and beguiled perhaps in ways similar to those produced by close encounters of a charismatic kind.
Charismatic lettuce and tomatoes
Charisma remains a fascinating concept. It has become over-used in popular culture. In his excellent book on the subject, John Potts gleefully reported the description of a charismatic lettuce, which presumably resulted in charismatic sandwiches. [I was reminded of the recent headlines in which Ed Miliband was confirmed as lacking in charisma because of the way he ate a bacon sandwich in public.]
The review of reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, confirms my point about the charismatic effect that Mr. Turner has had on its critics. Not so much rotten tomatoes, symbolizing artistic abuse, but veritable vegetable accolades.
Mr. Turner’s charisma
The film oozes charisma. there is a self-confidence in its visual impact. The demonstrations of sky- and sea- scapes were stunning and dog-whistle evocative. Reading the reviews is a humbling experience of dimensions of technical excellence which go unnoticed by amateur critics like myself.
The central performance by Timothy Spall as Turner was utterly compelling. This was the charisma of the physically near-grotesque yet ultimately endearing character. It also celebrated the notion of the disregard for convention of the creative genius. Does that sound like a cliche? If so, is it my cliche imposed on something subtler intentions?
Mike Leigh and distributed leadership
Over the years, Leigh has earned high regard for the integrity of his work, characterized by his unique improvisational style permitting artists to co-create characters. In leadership terms, this proves opportunities for distributed leadership.
The outcome is a set of performances mostly of high-quality, but inevitably individualistic. This has creative impact at the level of the individual and at the dyadic relationships with Spall’s Turner. What the approach gains in differentiated performances it loses in a lack of cohesion at the wider level of a narrative.
High on artistic values with a whiff of the didactic
The film manifests high artistic values. We are drawn to the scenic beauty and accompanying existential anguish which inspired Turner. We are invited to appreciate his innovative techniques he brought to his art.
For me, at times, the overall impact had rather too much of the earnest and didactic about its treatment of Turner’s artistic and moral integrity. This is rescued by a non-judgmental insistence on its ambiguities and contradictions.
The result is an experience that is visually engaging and intellectually stimulating, this is a film beyond worthy, if not quite the masterpiece implied by critical comment. Which, come to think of it, is another way of interpreting Mr. Turner.
The Fighting Temeraire [creative commons via Wikipedia]. One of many wondrous paintings by Turner weaved into the film.