Years ago, I was asked to write a screenplay about JMW Turner for Peter O’Toole (who was not going to play Turner). Sadly, the film never happened. It might have been a chance to redress the fact that most films about artists set in the past come badly unstuck when it comes to recreating the actual practice of drawing and painting. Peter Greenaway, in The Draughtsman’s Contract, took trouble to provide authentic 17th-century costumes and architecture, yet the draughtsman’s drawings – central to the plot – are embarrassingly late 20th-century in style. Likewise, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio indulges in painterly oil-sketching procedures unthinkable in Caravaggio’s time.
When I, and some of my colleagues on the Turner’s House Trust, were consulted by Mike Leigh and his team for the film Mr Turner, we found them already steeped in the artist, his life and times. They were well-read, stimulating to talk to, not really in need of much guidance from us. And watching the finished film was a strange mixture of the comfortably familiar and the utterly strange: Turner and the early 19th century bursting fresh and fully formed from creative minds, quite different from those of art historians and museum curators.
As everyone knows, Leigh is an idiosyncratic director. His methods are inscrutable, he keeps his cards close to his chest. He seems to enter into a mystic pact with his actors who join him in a passionate attempt to get as close to their subject as possible, to identify with characters and events as though they were reliving them not as mere imitators but as incarnations of those people and events. Stanislavsky is only the starting point as far as Leigh’s method is concerned. As for plot, that emerges out of the white heat of this debate.