Sublime passions

The subject of both his latest film and an upcoming Tate Britain exhibition, JMW Turner was a flawed, eccentric character with whom film director MIKE LEIGH finds great empathy

When I was about 14, I had art posters pinned to my bedroom wall. Picasso, the Impressionists and, even though I’ve now got over the enthusiasm, Salvador Dalí. But it wasn’t until I was at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts that I really started to look at JMW Turner and to become aware of him as a great painter. I responded, like we all do, to the scale of the paintings, to his dramatic portrayal of the elements and his use of light.  

It occurred to me in 1999 to make a film about Turner, after I’d finished a period picture about Gilbert and Sullivan called Topsy-Turvy. I knew some of the more famous Turners, but I knew very little about the man himself. As soon as  I started to read about him I thought, ‘This is a very good potential character for a Mike Leigh film.’ 

Turner was clearly a difficult, eccentric man and when you put a figure like him at the centre of a film, what is fascinating is the tension between him – as this flawed, eccentric individual – and the sublime, passionate and spiritual art he created. I have hung around artists and creative people for a very long time and he’s just one of those guys, basically. I suppose, had I met him, I would have had some instinctive empathy with him. 

Although Mr. Turner is a biographical picture, it’s not a biopic. I deliberately didn’t put time labels all over the screen because it is not a documentary. If anything, it is quite inventive with history. The film is, rather, a reflection on this incredible painter. And, as such, it doesn’t start at the beginning, with young Joseph Mallord William Turner being born, but covers instead the last 25 years of his life. 

I felt everything one would want to say about Turner could be said within that time, including the earlier biographical references – of which there were many different kinds – that we put in the film. In Turner’s final  25 years, his father died and he was distraught, he met  Mrs Booth in Margate and formed a long-standing relationship with her, and he famously clashed with Constable at the Royal Academy in 1832. 

Constable, who privately dismissed Turner’s work as being ‘just steam and light’, had been working for a long time on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’. Right next to Constable’s very red painting was Turner’s rather grey seascape, ‘Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, Going  to Sea’. When all the paintings were hung, Constable kept on putting finishing touches to Waterloo Bridge. Turner casually added a single daub of red paint to Helvoetsluys and, in doing so, transformed the painting. 

Turner often made trips to Europe and we would like to have filmed on the continent. But the only way you can do Venice is by going to Venice. You can’t simulate it. Nor can you build it. It would have been very, very expensive; it’s expensive just to buy a bag of chips. And we’d have needed control of chunks of Venice to ensure that [cinematographer] Dick Pope could capture the light. It just wasn’t viable. 

In the end, we decided it shouldn’t matter if we didn’t get to Europe, or Scotland – or Snowdonia. As long as  we got out of London, which we did, then other locations could stand as metaphors for all the trips he made. And Mr. Turner is not, as I’ve said, a biopic. It’s about the essence of a journey made by a radical, revolutionary painter who was a flawed individual.