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“Mr Turner” and “The Victorian City”

Like a fine wine and a good cheese, may I recommend an interesting movie/book pairing?

“Mr Turner”, a biopic about the English painter J.M.W. Turner, is a beauty from start to finish. (You know Turner from the ravishing use of color in his proto-Impressionist seascapes). Unknown-2

Mike Leigh, the director, shows how the art of film can dance with the art of painting when in the hands of a master. Timothy Spall gives a hilarious and sympathetic portrait of Turner as a grunting, driven sort of Victorian pigman who touches heaven with his brush ( also his finger, his tongue, and his sleeve).

The cast is consistently brilliant in that best-of-British acting way. The Brits tear up Costume Drama, especially if it is celebrating their lost glories. One actress deserves particular mention; Dorothy Atkinson, as Turner’s maid, Hannah Danby. She probably speaks ten words in the whole movie, but her face and body language will break your heart evens it delights it with her bravura skill. If the Academy Awards meant anything, this tour-de-force would have been at least on the short list.

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Coincidentally, I just finished reading  “The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London” by Judith Flanders. Without the filter of Dickens’ art, London at the time of Turner comes through as a thin and brittle marzipan house sitting on a mountain of human desperation and waste. And, though “literally” has become a misused cliché (thanks, I think, to Rob Lowe’s masterly abuse of it in “Parks and Recreation“), the mountain of waste is literal.

Without running water or sewers, people in London, a city of 2 million, usually emptied their chamber pots in the basement. Occasionally the rich and middle-class would have men bucket the muck out – the poor never did. For horrid example, a tenement of 800 had one privy. Blood from the animals brought into the city for slaughter ran into streams and then the River Thames, as did all industrial runoff. Add to this the manure from the horses that were the primary means of transportation and the Thames was, literally, a river of shit. It took the The Great Stink of the summer of 1858, which (yes, literally) drove the government, retching, from the halls of Parliament to make sewers an idea whose time had finally come. Prince Albert, he of the can, died of cholera from drinking the feces laden water.

The treatment of the legions of the Poor, of women, and children do not paint the aristocracy in the kindest light. Dickens, who like Turner, came from what the Brits called a “modest” background, maintained his outrage at social conditions throughout his life. Turner and the painterly class would wait generations to discover a social conscious.

The characters of “Mr Turner” keep their eyes on the firmament while up to their ankles in excrement. “The Victorian City” adds a fascinating dimension to the film.

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Jerry Pope

Pope is an artist, illustrator, and writer living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. 

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