I do not have very much to say about Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner other than to urge you all to seek it out.
Despite the fact that Leigh’s Topsy Turvy remains one of my favourite films, I had been put off going to see Mr. Turner by a series of trailers that made it look like the kind of sighing, nostalgic, worthy poison that is normally reserved for Sunday evening television. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about… conservative propaganda masquerading as ‘prestige drama’ and forced down the gullet of a population struggling to remain conscious after a weekend’s concerted hyper-consumption. British landscapes with the motorways dutifully cropped. British stately homes that are open to the public but only by appointment and on the understanding that HMRC won’t look too closely at the VAT receipts on the upkeep bills.
In truth, I shouldn’t have worried as Mr. Turner is just as strategically disrespectful as Topsy Turvy. In fact, the film’s methods and politics are so close to those of Topsy Turvy that one could almost talk of the films as a series united by a desire to re-claim, re-invent and re-humanise icons of Britain’s cultural past. I won’t hold my breath for a similar film about Agatha Christie or M.R. James but a boy can certainly dream.
The writing and acting that went into Mr. Turner are, naturally, sublime but I think particular credit needs to be given to the film’s cinematographer Dick Pope who has littered an otherwise very actor-centric film with some of the most arresting images to come out of British cinema in recent history. Though not as expressionistic as the work of Turner, you still have to marvel at Pope’s composition:
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“Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”
The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork: Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflee, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide:
“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”
“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
So ends Voltaire’s immortal novel Candide, ou L’Optimisme (1759). It is an oddly enigmatic ending that has elicited much commentary and speculation. By the end of the book, Candide has witnessed and experienced many hardships and horrors. He has travelled the world and seen the worst of it. Yet, when called upon to distill his all of his knowledge and insight, the optimist expresses only a desire to tend his garden. This desire to return to the garden is not an ode to the unexamined life or a hymn to religion’s capacity to return us to Edenic bliss. It is a belief, simply stated, that the world is what we make of it and that the harshness of existence can only be kept at bay by the construction of a carefully tended space. A space that is ours. A space that we control and that we care for. When Voltaire suggests that first we must tend to our gardens he is telling us that meaning is not something that we discover in the world, but something we build into it. Happiness requires work. It requires continual effort.
This simple realisation lies at the heart of Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year.
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