Mr. Turner: Mike Leigh’s Stunning Biopic

mr._turner_1A highlight of the 2014 Cannes Film Fest and a major achievement in Mike Leigh’s career, Mr. Turner will be released in the fall after playing the Toronto Film Fest.

A lot of readers have asked to get a detailed synopsis of Turner’s life ad career, as they unfold on screen.  I recommend that you read this article after watching the film.

The tale of Mr. Turner takes place over the last quarter century of the artist’s life, ending with his death in 1851.

The film being a dramatic reflection, rather than a documentary, Mike Leigh has chosen to let the action flow from one period of time to another, without interrupting it with labels, or identifying specific months and years.

Design, costume and particularly make-up help to underpin and define this progression, and in the case of Turner’s housekeeper Hannah Danby, it is probably useful to mention that what we gather from research about her deteriorating skin condition has led us to decide that it was psoriasis.

 mr._turner_5Regarding Turner’s trips to Margate and why he goes there in the first place, the town made an early impression on him. As he tells Mr and Mrs Booth, he attended school there for a couple of years, but we also know that he was much taken with the quality of light in Thanet, the part of Kent where Margate sits.

Returning from his continental travels, Turner comes home to his doting ex-barber father, William Turner Senior, and to his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who loves him, and whom he takes for granted, and occasionally exploits sexually. They both share the worry that Turner might have been involved in a bomb blast in Ostend, but he assures them he was elsewhere.

After William Senior has organized the purchase of paints and materials for his son, sorted out some new canvases, shaved Turner and eaten with him, he shows particular customers round their private gallery, an activity the painter views through a secret hole.

They receive a visitation from the aggressive and resentful Sarah Danby, Turner’s ex-lover, and the mother of his adult illegitimate daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, who accompany her.  Evelina presents Turner with his new-born granddaughter. Mrs. Danby grumbles at Turner’s neglect of her family. We learn that she is Hannah’s aunt. Now Turner retreats by horse coach to the country estate of the generous Lord Egremont, where he paints and draws, communes with other artists, sings Purcell badly, lends money to an errant and erratic artist Haydon, and sketches a musical evening.

He travels on by steamer to Margate, where he finds convivial sea-facing lodgings with a Mr and Mrs Booth. After a coastal walk, he spends an evening with them, during which he reveals his schooldays in the town, and laments with them the pain of slavery and the loss of dear ones. Preferring to conceal his identity, he assumes the name Mallard.

Back in London, he is visited by the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville. She demonstrates to Turner in his studio the magnetic properties of violet light. He is fascinated, and she is much taken with his paintings.

mr._turner_3During one of Turner’s well-attended but badly-delivered public lectures on perspective, William Senior suffers a serious coughing attack.

Subsequently, the old man’s condition quickly deteriorates, and in the presence of his bereft son and housekeeper, he dies. His last words with Turner concern the mentally unstable state of the artist’s long-deceased mother. It is apparent that neither man had much affection for her.

In grief, Turner goes fishing, and visits a brothel, where he draws a young prostitute, and breaks down in tears. At home he paints ‘Death on a Pale Horse’, and has sexual intercourse with Hannah, taking her from behind as she selects a book from a bookcase.


Turner roves the untamed countryside. In a remote coastal place, where a tiny ancient chapel perches on a clifftop, wild horses follow him over the horizon.

Returning to Margate, he discovers that Mrs Booth is now a widow. He offers his condolences. Then, much to his amusement, she enquires whether he is still making his “nice little pictures”.

Back in London, he displays a cold disregard for Hannah, ignoring her enquiries as to his trip. Since the old man’s death, she has taken over the running of Turner’s studio, and she now lists the latest delivery of his art materials.

Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, when the painters (all men) put the finishing touches to their work, now hung in position for the Annual Exhibition.

Turner scuttles about, enjoying friendly banter with various colleagues. He shares a taciturn exchange with John Constable, whose ‘Opening of Waterloo Bridge’, all bright reds and scarlets, has been hung next to Turner’s predominantly grey seascape, ‘Helvoetsluys’. For a jape, Turner paints a startling red blob slap in the middle of his piece, and after a few minutes’ consideration by all present, culminating in Constable’s leaving in a huff, Turner returns to convert the red blob into a life-buoy. Much amusement all round.

 mr._turner_5On this same occasion, Haydon, who owes Turner £50, throws a public tantrum because his painting (of a donkey) has been hung in the ante-room. He is resentful of never having been elected to the Academy.


Finally Turner goes to work energetically to finish another of his paintings, ‘Staffa, Fingal’s Cave’. A large group of artists gather round and watch, fascinated, as he ostentatiously paints, smudges, smears and spits at his canvas, and blows a strange brown powder onto it.


A mountain, a valley, a rugged rock formation, a dramatic sky. Turner is out and about in the wild.  Returning to Mrs. Booth at Margate, he now becomes intimate with her, to which she reciprocates tenderly, and she takes him to bed. In the morning, he leaves as the sun rises over the sea.

Turner has himself tied firmly to the mast of a ship, so that he can experience the full force of a snow storm. Having thus exposed himself to the elements, he contracts bronchitis. He is now staying with Mrs Booth, and her local physician, Dr Price, prescribes for “Mr Mallard”, “the three B’s: bed, balsam, and broth – to be administered in this case by the fourth B, the admirable Mrs Booth.”

Back in his London studio, Turner leaves off painting his ‘Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ to attend to potential customers in his gallery. These are the young John Ruskin and his father, who are pondering buying Turner’s painting ‘Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on’.

Time passes: By now, both Turner and Hannah are becoming older and greyer, and Hannah’s skin condition is getting worse. Meanwhile, Turner is enjoying his secret other life with Mrs. Booth at Margate. They walk out, arm in arm, taking the sea air; he sketches, she shops and sweeps; he goes out for long working trips.

One day, as they are out strolling, Turner collapses.

mr._turner_2In Mrs. Booth’s house, Dr. Price examines the artist in bed, in Mrs. Booth’s presence. Warning “Mr. Mallard” not to work too hard, the physician asks Turner to remind him what is his profession. He begs to differ with Turner’s claim to be a lawyer, and reveals that he knows who he is, and that he is honored to meet him.


Turner and Mrs. Booth are horrified, but the doctor assures them of his discretion, and informs Turner that he is suffering from a heart condition, and that he had better take it easy.

Back in his London house, he is castigated by Sarah Danby and Evelina for having failed to be present at the funeral of the other daughter, Georgiana. To his mumbling that he was out of town, Sarah sneers, “As ever, sir, painting your ridiculous shipwrecks.”


The steamer takes Turner back to Margate, where, one evening in bed, as they prepare for sleep, Mrs. Booth shares with Turner her plan to sell up and lease a house for them by his “beloved River Thames, not too far from London Town.”


One day, on the river, Turner is swigging beer in a rowing barge, in the convivial company of the painters Clarkson Stanfield and David Roberts.


Suddenly, they encounter the great old ship, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, which is being towed by a little steam tug to its final resting place, the breaker’s yard. The painters reflect on the history and fate of this famous naval veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar. But Turner exhorts the others to celebrate the modern age of steam, rather than lament the passing of the old world. Stanfield suggests that Turner should paint this scene, and Turner wryly promises to ponder the notion.


And indeed, back in his London studio, that is precisely what he does. He is working intensively on what will, of course, become his most famous painting, when Hannah informs him that he has a visitor, Haydon.

Haydon offers Turner £10 towards his £50 debt. Turner learns that the impoverished and embittered Haydon and his wife have lost several children. He cancels the debt, and has Hannah escort the protesting Haydon off the premises.

In the company of the military painter George Jones, Turner visits the Ruskins, who now proudly possess ‘Slavers’, which hangs in the hall of their house. After supper, Turner and Jones, together with Stanfield and Roberts, sit in the Ruskins’ drawing room with their host, his wife, and their precocious and opinionated young son, John. The conversation takes in gooseberries and seascape painting, with particular reference to a comparison between Turner’s work and that of Claude Lorrain (1600 -1682). Mr and Mrs Ruskin indulge their son’s outspoken opinions, and Turner gently sends him up.


In the countryside, Turner is inspired by coming upon a state-of-the-art railway engine, hauling its carriages, and back in his London studio he paints his ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed’. Hannah surveys this piece somewhat blankly.

We are now in the Victorian Age. Four short scenes depict philistine attitudes towards Turner’s increasingly radical and more abstract-looking work.


Queen Victoria pays a private visit to the Royal Academy with Prince Albert. Seeing two of Turner’s paintings, they express horror and disgust. Turner overhears them, and slinks away.


Two other occasions in art galleries, in Turner’s absence……. Three gentlemen scoff at a Turner, and two ladies sarcastically compare his work with varied kinds of food.


Finally, Turner visits a popular London theatre, where the audience whoops with delight at a comic sketch depicting an art dealer selling to a wealthy collector a canvas on which jam tarts have been accidentally spilled. Told that the piece is a Turner, the collector cheerfully pays the dealer a thousand pounds. The audience finds this hilarious, and Turner leaves, mortified.


Turner, drunk at a fashionable society dinner, connects with John Ruskin’s new young wife.


Early morning at his London home. Turner is asleep on his bed, fully clothed in his day wear. Waking him with a cup of tea, Hannah enquires when she can next expect him. His evasive reply provokes her to observe that it’s now not worth her changing the sheets on his bed. He can’t reply, and goes, leaving her alone and forlorn.


Turner and Mrs. Booth are now happily domiciled in their riverside house in Chelsea.


Turner visits the London studio of J.J.E. Mayall, a young photographer and maker of daguerreotypes. Turner is fascinated by the camera and the technology, but expresses concern at the implication of this new art.


In Chelsea, he shows Mrs. Booth his daguerreotype portrait, and informs her, to her horror, that he has arranged for the two of them to be photographed together in a few days. Although she flatly refuses to go, we soon find her there, side by side with Turner. She is terrified. As Mayall takes their picture, he talks of having photographed the Niagara Falls. Turner reflects ruefully that there will soon come a time when photography will replace painting.


In Turner’s gallery, he refuses an offer of £100,000 from Joseph Gillott, the pen nib manufacturing millionaire. Gillott wants to buy Turner’s entire oeuvre, but Turner has bequeathed all his work to the British Nation, “to be seen all together, in one place, gratis.” Calling this perverse, the baffled magnate is reluctantly escorted off the premises by the ageing Hannah.


Turner is now entering his dotage. He falls over, but won’t let Mrs Booth fuss over him, he paints while she cleans his brushes, and he recites for her a bawdy poem of his own.

He visits the Royal Academy and chortles dismissively at the Pre-Raphaelites, and one day, when visiting his London house, he absent-mindedly confuses two coats, putting on one instead of the other, which he has just taken off.


Arriving back to Mrs. Booth, Turner is, with some difficulty, describing his visit that day to Hyde Park to look at the construction of Crystal Palace. Suddenly, he has a heart attack.


Meanwhile, Hannah finds Turner’s discarded jacket, which has been soiled by one of her cats. A letter she finds in one of the pockets is addressed to him at his Chelsea house, the existence of which she is, of course, entirely ignorant.  Dr. Price has travelled up from Margate by the new railway. Examining the now bed-ridden Turner, he warns him that his days are numbered. The patient invites the doctor to take a large sherry and reassess his diagnosis. At Dr Price’s refusal to do this, Turner reflects that he is now to become a nonentity, a notion the doctor rejects.


At the front door, Dr. Price takes his leave of Mrs. Booth. As he walks away, he passes Hannah, who, severely shrouded to conceal her scarred face, has come with a woman friend to find Turner’s house.


She does so, and is extremely distressed. The next-door neighbor confirms that an ailing elderly gentleman does indeed live there “with his good lady wife”, and Hannah leaves, distraught.


In and out of delirium, Turner, much though Mrs. Booth tries to stop him, insists on going outside in his bed-shirt to sketch the corpse of a young woman the police have recovered from the river. Turner collapses, and Mrs. Booth helps him back into the house and upstairs.


Turner is now on his death bed. Mrs. Booth and Dr. Price sit with him. Suddenly he mumbles something to Mrs. Booth. It is “me damsel”, his name for Hannah. Then he declares, “The sun is God!” laughs briefly, and dies.


The doctor checks his pulse and closes his eyes. Mrs. Booth buries her face in Turner’s arm. We now see an image of Turner standing, drawing, silhouetted against the enormous setting sun.


Mrs. Booth is vigorously cleaning her window. She is wearing black. She stops for a few moments, and thinks about Turner. She is wistful, sad, gently amused, proud. She resumes her task.


Hannah rattles around in the now decaying, cluttered, dusty gallery and studio, muttering, weeping, sad and lonely.