A short, plump man with a guttural voice and a tall, wispy, elderly man walk side by side into a sunlit room. They talk of horses and oxen, sunsets and milkmaids, before pausing by varied panels of artwork painted by the shorter man. He is J. M. W. Turner, and the taller man, his patron, is the eccentric 3rd Earl of Egremont. After congratulating Turner on his work, the earl bids good evening to Nat, a footman, and Miss Coggins, a thirty-something lady playing Beethoven's Pathetique on a pianoforte. He then leaves to get ready for dinner, and Turner is left with Miss Coggins. Turner enquires as to the composer, recognising the piece. Talking, they discover a shared love of Henry Purcell’s music, and improvise a duet of Dido's lament from one of Purcell's operas. They are both evidently moved by the encounter. "A song of lost love," Turner utters, to the air as much as to Miss Coggins. "Indeed," she sighs back. They thank each other, and Turner exits, leaving Miss Coggins seated at her now silent pianoforte, alone in the room of paintings and statues, as the clock chimes.
In this short scene, with one word and a few camera shots, a whole life is laid bare. The woman is Miss Coggins - long past the age of marriage, she will never know love, never have children and has failed in her entire role in 18th century society. Like the story of Odysseus’ scar unfolding before the reader as his nurse unfolds the bandages to clean his old traveller's legs, these Homeric digressions into whole worlds demonstrate what carefully crafted language can do. A life in one word!
But the film in question, Mr Turner (2014), is rare in such use of language. There have always been B-movies, cheap thrills, and films that put cinematic effect and technique over everything else, but this is now the norm. This is the effect of Spielberg on cinema; it’s all show over substance. But cameras are not simply for recording speech; the good director must speak with the camera itself and sing a duet with the writers. The camera shines a light over the words on the page. Cinematography is to the script what measure is to poetry; film is at its best when it works with literature, as literature. Mr Turner is a masterpiece of literary cinema. Hollywood should take note: our lenses have widened, our lighting effects have greater range, proportion is perfected, and CGI lays claim to the universe, but what we have gained with such ‘paint’ we have lost with clarity and depth of meaning.
It is how a film shows something and what it shows. Napoleon (1927) is a masterpiece because of the truth of the characters (a more truthful Napoleon would be impossible to write and show) and the situation in what they say and do, and how it is shot. It is the same for Mr Turner. Just as the writer speaks, so too does the director speak with the shot. Mr Turner speaks and what it says is profound, whereas Spielberg speaks but what he says is prosaic. It’s like watching a well-directed action blockbuster: it's shows well, but shows nothing. We need works that show well and show something - works that speak, works that sing.