He was a child prodigy who at age 15 had a painting accepted by Britain’s august Royal Academy of Arts. He was a prolific painter of some 30,000 works. He invented a painting style that turned traditional art modern. He is recognized as the finest landscape painter in English history. But you’d never guess any of that watching the newly released DVD “Mr. Turner,” a biopic of 18-19th century painter JMW Turner in his later years.
While very little is known about his personal life, this film offers a detailed look at his sex life. Even more brazen is the brutishness of the portrayal, which ends up vulgarizing Turner in several ways. Let me count the ways.
One scene shows him entering the home of a woman he knows and abruptly, gruffly, wordlessly taking her from behind – as if grabbing a quick bite to eat standing up at a kitchen counter.
Another scene has him telling a young woman in a brothel to lie clothed on a bed while he sits at the foot of the bed. With only his head appearing in the shot, you see and hear him bleating and braying – presumably masturbating – after which he tells the girl to expose her breasts. At this point, you can’t help thinking of Turner as just a dirty old man.
Such boorishness is a lot to presume about a man few knew beyond his paintings. And of these the film allows only glances.
Even the way the film begins repels. What you see is Turner silhouetted against a setting sun that conjures up the potbellied profile of Alfred Hitchcock. Adding to that allusion is a foreboding soundtrack – inharmonious and often jolting, reminiscent of curtain-raisers to psychological thrillers. Dissonant screeching of violin bows scratching/scraping across its strings is hardly a fitting introduction to Turner’s reverential way with celestial light.
And that, in the end, is the biggest problem with this film. There’s simply not enough about Turner, the artist. A scene of him in a room of paintings hanging on a Royal Academy wall has him adding a touch of vermillion to his canvas. This actually happened and had import. Yet the film shows it without context as an isolated moment.
Talk about lost moments, the painting actually hung next to a work by John Constable and as historians tell it, Turner added the passage of red to his canvas because of the Constable painting. See, Turner’s palette was typically greyed while Constable’s was typically heightened. On seeing the high color, Turner added the dab of red to his grey picture, which made the red more intense by contrast and ultimately perfected the work.
Constable also learned from Turner. Impatient with a work and aware there was something missing, he asked Turner what he thought was missing. Turner grabbed a brush and painted a ripple in the water, which turned out to be the missing piece.
Nothing about art making is made as clear in this film as Turner’s zoological-like relations with women.