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The Cinematography in Mr. Turner: Can you see the elephant?

June 27, 2015

See if you can find the man in a red & white stripes.

Mr. Turner (2014) is a seemingly slow and methodical film. The consumption of which at two and a half hours is a rather daunting task. After all, the closest the film comes to offering either goblin or cave troll to its audience members is the perpetual grunting of its title character (played by Timothy Spall). And yet to reshape the film by cutting time or to have made its pace anything quicker than a stroll would have been to photo shop director and writer Mike Leigh’s vision into something compressed and claustrophobic.

The film neither conforms nor contorts its vision to the narrative arcs of traditional plot structure. After all, the plot is a man’s life, and lives are lived in many arcs. In this sense, Leigh’s film reveals itself in a plethora of brushstrokes as he paints the latter years of J.M.W. Turner’s life onto a cinematic canvas. Thus, the film becomes not so much about meaning but about watching.

Okay, this one's tough because he's wearing scuba gear over the stripes.
In one particular scene, William Turner Sr. (Paul Jesson) asks Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), “Can you see the elephant?” The question puzzles her, for when she looks toward the painting, all she can see are the mountains and the sky. William Turner Sr. then steps towards the oil-covered canvas with his arm and finger extended. And there, at the end of his flesh and bone, is the tiniest smudge of an elephant. The film’s cinematography repeats this act throughout the two and a half hours of its running time, and the cooperation between Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope renders not so much a biopic of a British painter but a portrait to be found within the grandeur of a wild landscape, lending Mr. Turner the shape and feel of a Where’s Waldo? book.


While the film broaches questions about art and explores the boundaries between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Mr. Turner never concerns itself with answers, even refusing to articulate a full opinion about the man’s ethics and morality, leaving him rather exposed to interpretation, like Odysseus tied to the mast with a paintbrush in his hand. And this refusal of the film’s to become didactic in its voice is precisely what allows it to explore the mechanisms of thoughtful viewing.  

Of course, the elephant in the room is ultimately the class system of 19th century Britain. And with that, consider considering the gooseberry. 

Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.

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