Mr. Turner and Patrick’s Day headline the films opening this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Each offers a memorable portrait of a distinctive personality. One is a distinguished 19th century British painter; the other, an ordinary young Irishman struggling with mental illness.
Although it did not win any of its four Oscar categories, Mr. Turner earned a Best Actor award for Timothy Spall as painter J.M.W. Turner and the Vulcain Prize for Technical Artistry for Dick Pope at Cannes, as well as a nomination there for thePalme d’Or honoring director Mike Leigh. Well-known for studies of the British working class like Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, and Secrets & Lies, Mr. Leigh reaches back into the 19th century to re-create the world of one of England’s most highly regarded landscape painters and watercolorists. It is a unique place, fully inhabited by Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner.
The viewer meets this gruff, growling man with the rolling gait (achieved through orthotics) at home in the company of his father (Paul Jesson), a barber, and admiring but doltish housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). These are not handsome or elegant people like the denizens of Downton Abbey, but quirky and intriguing folks. Turner is not portrayed as the heroic or anguished artist, but rather as an ordinary fellow who happens to be a genius. Turner does make excursions to Margate and England’s breathtaking coast, where he draws inspiration for his work, but these trips remain workmanlike rather than celebrations of the artistic spirit.
It is not easy to vivify in moving pictures the world of an artist, who communicates most importantly in static images, but Mr. Leigh is more than up to the task. Particularly telling is a scene where self-important critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) pontificates on his “controversial” theories of landscape and marine painting. In another, an ignorant young Queen Victoria disparages the great painter’s work. Particularly arresting is a scene where Turner dabs a blotch of red in the middle of one of his finished marine paintings on exhibit. The art appreciators present shake their heads in dismay, until the purpose of the artist’s finishing touch becomes clear.
Rather than romanticize the painter at work, Mr. Leigh gives the viewer glimpses of his less-than-positive interactions with an estranged wife and two daughters, his off-kilter relationship with the Margate widow Sophia (Marion Bailey), and his grudgingly collegial dealings with the art world. Mr. Turner offers viewers a world fully realized and fascinating.
The central character of Patrick’s Day could not be more different from J.M.W. Turner. Director Terry McMahon’s Patrick Fitzgerald (Moe Dunford) is a naive, anonymous young man struggling with schizophrenia. Although born on St. Patrick’s Day, he does not belong in the pantheon of saints. His life is controlled by his mother Maura (Kerry Fox) and the world of the halfway house where he lives. While Mr. Turner works hard to avoid idealizing its subject, Patrick’s Day does the opposite, celebrating a young man who has no particular contribution to make to the world other than his heartwarming personality.
The third annual film in the Feature Film project sponsored by the Manhattan Shorts, the Island screening of Patrick’s Day offers viewers the opportunity to help decide whether the film should earn national distribution. When Patrick’s mother shepherds him to a birthday dinner and carnival, they are separated. Waiting in a hotel hallway for his mother, Patrick meets a depressive flight attendant, Karen (Catherine Walker), who seduces him. Patrick is instantly smitten. His mother goes to great lengths to separate the pair by convincing Patrick that the object of his affection is an illusion caused by his illness. Mr. Turner may illustrate the ordinary world of a great painter, but Patrick’s Day elevates the humane and ordinary dimensions of an individual afflicted with mental illness. In addition to its accomplished acting, the latter film’s compelling exploration of mental illness should earn it a national audience.
On Thursday, March 5, Vineyard psychiatrist Charles Silberstein will lead a discussion of the film following its screening at 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For information and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com.