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Mr. Turner and Time

Mr. Turner, Written and Directed by Mike Leigh, 2014 —

A windmill, a silvery river. From the right two women in peaked white Dutch caps walk into the frame, continuing on in a gentle diagonal along the river bank, talking together in intimate good-humored conversation.
Is it sunrise or sunset? This is a question that will turn out to matter.
They walk lower left out of the frame, revealing Turner behind them, a monolith, a stone of Stonehenge, on a rise.

A Monolith

Two girls return, a different pair, giggling together in complicit intimacy as they run up a flight of stairs.
Turner has arrived!
He strides through the rooms of a country estate, a good fellow at ease among his patrons, men who are as willing to debate the nature of color as whether they, the fortunate few, should admit a supplicant to the Academy. In the person of Turner in his prime, art has its privileges. One can belong.

Debates occur throughout. Aesthetics is daily bread in these overlapping circles of artists and aristocrats.
“Is the sunset better than the sunrise?” Turner decides in favor of the latter: “The power of the sunrise is not affected by the diminishing light.”

Claude Lorrain, whether he is — or is not — a good artist rages hot among them. To many of these men, Lorrain is dismissable, a colorist of fantasized history. For Turner, he is the master. Why, I wondered? I investigated Lorrain and there it is, that sky, a light that must mean sunrise, for ships do not embark in dying light. Centuries before Turner picks up his brush, Lorrain has accorded a vision of what Turner must try to do: make history disappear into light.

Claude Lorrain, Embarkation of St. Paula at Ostia, 1639


In this remarkable movie we are interested, along with Turner, in the physical world as it dematerializes. This is also what interests the filmmaker. I once had occasion to ask Mike Leigh a question during a film festival question-and-answer session. I remarked on what I had perceived in all his films: “a structure of visual metaphor that you never call attention to, but somehow give us your themes. Could you comment on that?”

Leigh, a director who is most often asked about his work with actors, the long times during which he requires immersion and improvisation, turned to me, he on the stage, me in the audience, leaned forward, and spoke directly to me: “That’s the question I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me all my life.”

I was too stunned, too happy, to remember his answer. At the end of the session, exiting through a revolving door, he caught sight of me still in the lobby. He let the door revolve all the way around and walked back to me. He wordlessly grasped my hands, then turned and left through the revolving door. Looking back now, I see that the answer was contained in his acknowledgement of my question and, I like to think, in an acknowledgement of kinship. We want to be understood.

Leigh is a master of connective tissue; he is the artist of ligaments. Turner visits a brothel where the madam shows him her recent acquisition, a young girl who, as she later tells him while beginning to strip, is willing to do “extras.” But Turner does not want extras. He wants his purchase to be a model, giving her directions (as a filmmaker might), arranging her to lie supine on the bed, her arms across her young breasts. “How old are you?” he inquires. “Twenty two, sir,” and with this simple statement, Turner crumples into tears and then into unconstrained sobs for his father’s recent death, and for youth, as it is embodied in this young woman, at her fate and perhaps even at his own fate, an artist who has turned her into an image of death.

Turner visits the HMS Temeraire to look a last time at the once-great ship, soon to be broken up. The old age is being dismantled. The past of oak yields to the present of iron. And here we come to my answer to viewers who have criticized the film for not showing why it is that Turner turns to abstraction. Mike Leigh does show it, in the coming of the train, in the shift from mist to steam. Turner, standing near the tracks, sees the great clouds of steam effacing the train itself; he knows it is now: this is his new subject, the ever-more dematerializing world that is his to paint.

The Shift from Mist to Steam

J. M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed- The Great Western Railway, 1844

But Turner is also the subject of Queen Victoria, who does not care for this new work; “vile” she calls it, a “dirty yellow.” She wants her world smack dab in front of her where she can see it, history and all. The public is given license to ridicule. Turner lurks in the wings, sees himself mocked and turns away. One can be exiled from belonging.

And then the daguerrotype arrives, the new machine that fixes time. For his portrait, Turner is fitted into a neck contraption, a kind of brace.
He asks the photographer what it is for.
The photographer tells him it is so that his subjects will stay still.
“What is this?” Turner asks.
The photographer replies: “It is a looking glass to illuminate your good self.”
“And what is this — ?”
Turner asks as the photographer ducks under the black cloth draped over the camera.
The photographer answers the question simply and fatally. “It is for shutting out the light.”
How could this be? One can almost hear Turner asking this question of the new medium that thrives on light as painting does, but needs to shut it out in order not to evoke it but to capture it, to keep it still.

Age.The spirit of the age. Ageless. And here to me is the loveliest moment in the film, a moment of found love, Turner painting, Mrs. Booth cooking, together in the same room, one brandishing his brush, the other her spoon.

Mrs. Booth and Mr. Turner

They are singing one to the other, “Dear Molly, Be Still” a poem set to music, its author that very Joseph Mallard William Turner (we know him as J.M.W. and as Mallard, the name that Turner uses when he first visits Mrs. Booth in her rooming house and does not want to be known). Mike Leigh’s subtlety – his refusal to say, in effect, “And do you know –“ continues to amaze; I only know the origin of the song because I looked it up on-line, seeing the draft from his sketchbook included in the recent Tate show of Turner’s late work. Otherwise, the song passes by us . . . and then it doesn’t. Because now Turner begins to die. His doctor comes up on the train. Once a forecast, a gleam in the doctor’s eye, the railway that connects Margate to London has been built.

Outside Turner’s home, two women sit on a low wall, a kind of stoop, a perch for looking. Two other women walk by. One is Hannah, his maid who has loved him faithfully, asking and getting nothing in return. Her heart is broken. The women on the stoop go on sitting. They remain good-natured, recalling to a viewer the two Dutch women who began the film, two modes of being – heartbreak and humor — in the same scene. Another of Mike Leigh”s great gifts is to bring us into the ways we live, not juxtaposed, one after another, but together in time.

Mike Leigh

And now it is nearly the end. There is a dead girl lying on the wharf, her body in a position that is reminiscent of the prostitute earlier, art no longer arrangement but an ending. The girl is young. She is life cut too early. Turner rises and somehow gets himself to the wharf. He wants to see. But it is too much for him. The walk, the wharf, the sight. He lurches and must be brought back to bed.
Be still, dear Molly.
Be still.


  1. William Cutter says:

    A gorgeous treatment and discussion of a movie–much in the style of the movie itself. Evocative and ambiguous–and very congruent with the life that has been presented on the screen. A great movie which many people must have hated; maybe a connoisseur’s movie. I don’t know. I would add something about the contrast between the glory of this art and the crudeness — the sex, the grunting, even the eating. One looks to one’s own sensibilities and how we appear when we ourselves may appear to others while we are looking for richer horizons. It’s just that geniuses share those horizons with an unsuspecting world. Bill Cutter

  2. stuart frolick says:


    I missed Mr. Turner on the big screen; will look for it on the small one.
    Love the anecdote about your Q&A with the director. You’re so right
    about the importance of being, or at least feeling, understood.

    Congrats on another terrific piece of writing!

    All best, as always, s.

  3. Your beautiful article inspires me to see the movie.

  4. A feast of distinctive responses to an extraordinary movie. I too was touched by Mike Leigh’s response to your perfectly timed and phrased question.

  5. Jamie Wolf says:

    As usual, a truly enlightening and enlarging piece of work!

  6. I know that your piece is not a review of the film Turner, as the film is not a biography of Turner. Like all your other works I am familiar with, writing and photos they illuminates something I might be familiar with already, but you show me your own vision your own special reflection. As a photographer, you’d have an interesting dialogue with Turner, but your exchange with Mike Leigh was also very special. It certainly helped me to connect this wonderful film to his previous works, works that I thought to be quite different before reading your essay. It just happened that I saw the Turner show at the Getty a couple of days before your piece, which provided me with additional connections. As always I look forward to your next, whatever it is going to be.

  7. James Moore says:

    Thank you for once again dissecting your subject to reveal its inner workings and to expose the hidden treasures within. The anecdote you share is but a condensed version of the same gift for cogent analysis and reflection.

  8. thank you, janet. Now i can’t wait to see the film, but also to connect it to the many Mike Leigh films I have adored over the years.

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