When British director Mike Leigh goes into the past, as in his Gilbert and Sullivan bio-pic Topsy-Turvy and now in Mr. Turner, his new film about the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), he adds visual richness to the lifelike naturalism of his usual filmmaking project. More than a realist, Leigh is also an exacting chronicler of emotion such as his scrutiny of class dynamics in Naked, Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky. His political awareness doesn’t get in the way of examining Englishness. Leigh’s period films define nationality through his artist-characters’ cultural heritage.
Turner’s idiosyncrasies as a divorced husband, randy bachelor, distant father and cosseted son are balanced with his singlemindedness as a dedicated craftsman who is also an exploitative employer and a notable, ruthlessly competitive figure in London’s 19th-century art scene. Leigh goes past Turner’s celebrity to observe private motivation and creative drive. This probing concentration dares answer today’s confusions about celebrity; Mr. Turner defies the current widespread hostility toward genuine artistry. That’s why this impressive film has been ignored in the current awards circus.
Turner’s foibles, including the work and sweat and risk of painting, go against the Masterpiece Theater pomposity in which artistic inspiration is mystified as upperclass gentility for the glory of the British Empire. (Turner encounters an innkeeper whose religious conversion puts the Empire in perspective). As portrayed by Timothy Spall, Turner’s rotund brutishness, self-absorption, short temper and vocabulary of grunts and snorts de-romanticizes the artistic profession. From this no-nonsense perspective, the legendary Turner is seen as part of the Victorian era’s ethical duplicity and its post-Industrial Revolution economy.
Leigh’s rigorous authenticity includes a Turneresque visual scheme; cinematographer Dick Pope recreates the aesthetics of Turner’s land-, sea- and skyscapes. The lighting is sensual, majestic and felt as real. A distant shot of Turner hopping over puddles on a beach recalls David Lean’s scale, combining spectacle and metaphysics. Equally amazing are interior scenes where Turner deals with other humans: the temperament of his ex-wife (powerful Ruth Sheen), his scullery maid (pathetic Dorothy Atkinson) and the hotelier (affable Marion Bailey) who becomes his mistress. In Leigh’s typical manner, these nuanced but unsurprising eccentricities are dogged characterizations.
How far Leigh extends this intimate examination of human oddity can be both astonishing and exasperating, but few filmmakers do it so well. The horror of Turner’s maid/concubine debilitating before our eyes, like a house-bound corpse or Jacob Marley’s ghost, inscribes the misery of social inequity and the pain of unequal love. (This puts Tim Burton’s Big Eyes to shame.) It makes Turner’s personal cruelty surreal. Leigh dissects the malady of social hierarchy in scenes at London’s Royal Academy of Art where paintings line the walls floor to ceiling as artists compete for patronage and honor. Here, the economic exchange of cultural production is made with almost jubilant clarity, along with the snobbery and ostracism of elites. “He is not of our temperament” a clique says about a struggling artist whom Leigh shows walking away, into the distance and obscurity. Observation, critique and compassion in one shot.
Like the best movies about painters (Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch) Leigh’s Mr. Turner also captures a cultural sea change. Leigh only falters when depicting the equally visionary scholar John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a pipsqueak and twerp. After all, it was Ruskin who made Turner’s reputation. Focusing on Turner, surrounded by paintings, books, philosophy, science and music — including the beginnings of pop vulgarity when Turner seduces a female musician (“I posses a strong fondness for Purcell”) — Leigh denies Ruskin’s role in the vanguard of artistic consciousness.
Leigh presents the troubled Turner as verging on abstract art and photography. It’s not fake hindsight but sympathetic insight into British character and formidable artistic instinct. Rather than simply heroicize a painter’s struggle, Leigh juxtaposes it with pain, suffering, grunts, death. Like Turner, Leigh is master of a difficult, obstinate artistry.
The Andy Warhol quote that opens Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (“I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it”) dismisses “art” and trumpets popular success. The movie goes on to accept Warhol’s amoral prophecy about the decline of artistic standards and then uses it for politically correct sentimentality.
Burton’s subject is the 1960s Keane fad and art fraud in which paintings of large-eyed children and animals made Walter Keane a celebrity even though the paintings were actually done by his wife. This strange story is used for both cultural satire and a feminist statement (at a post-divorce trial, Margaret Keane claims her husband “dominated” her). These muddled interests ruin the film.
Burton misunderstands the Keane hoax as a risible tale of eccentricity. Despite the cleverness of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script, he never gets to the heart of Margaret’s dedication to maudlin imagery and cuteness. Distracted by Walter’s rascally exploitation, Burton and his writing team indulge two kinds of shamelessness (the couple was called “two nuts that fell from the same tree”) and presents their personal and public clash as symptomatic of some mid-20th century American vulgarity.
Cynicism doesn’t adequately answer the Keanes’ kitsch (and until recently was never before part of Burton’s filmmaking), The still-poignant wonder and humor of Burton’s 1994 Ed Wood (also written by Alexander and Karaszewski) comes from its sympathetic understanding of eccentricity. Burton’s own out-of-step interest in horror films and pop culture schlock grasped the sweetness of Wood’s drive and incompetence and the camaraderie of his freaky friends. Big Eyes is about betrayal–by a husband (Christoph Waltz) of his wife (Amy Adams)–yet it betrays the simple emotions behind Margaret’s paintings.
When Big Eyes shows Margaret holed up in a garret/prison, turning out canvases for her husband to sell, the over-bright, cartoonish imagery neglects her fear. Burton and his team avoid her pitiful self-exploitation, abandon her feelings, and insist that her paintings are ridiculous. The filmmakers were kinder to Ed Wood’s “ridiculousness.”
Casting Waltz (Tarantino’s gift to creepy postmodernism) doesn’t help since he’s unappealing and untrustworthy from the beginning; neither does Amy Adams’ one-note victimhood. Even at their characters’ most desperate point (his courtroom embarrassment, her public embezzlement), they both come across patronized–60s freaks from the same cartoon world as Edward Scissorhands (they honeymoon in the bubble-gum pink Royal Hawaiian hotel).
Instead of finding sincerity in the Keane paintings, Big Eyes mocks them: verbally (“little hobo kids,” “big, stale jellybean eyes”) and visually when panicky Margaret thinks she sees people’s eyes ballooning like the F/X in Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun music video (directed by Howard Greenhalgh). Saddest of all, unlike Ed Wood, Burton seems no longer to believe in the possibility of art; cynicism has overtaken his wit, resulting in an unsavory mixture of kitsch, sentimentality, deception and pain. But where’s the love?
Maybe Big Eyes is such a Sour Patch Kid (a better title if pluralized) because, 20 years after the optimistic originality of Ed Wood, it expresses apprehension that Hollywood and the film industry is as fickle and disreputable as the art world. The folly of Margaret’s fight for recognition is summed up by Jason Schwartzman as a gallery owner who snidely asks “Who would want credit?” It stops the film cold because the filmmakers, who use a jaded reporter as narrator, can’t hold back their own contempt and seem proud of it.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.