THE BLOG
12/20/2014 11:10 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2015

Mr. Turner : Movies Butchering History

This is the scene: The housekeeper, in her fifties or sixties, is fully clothed in a long dark Victorian dress and bonnet. She has her back to the camera, perhaps dusting. In strides a heavy, hulk of a man: a coarse, fleshy face, his straw-like hair askew.

He scowls at the woman, grunts something undecipherable, rams himself against her, pinning her to the wall, lifting her skirts as he does so. He thrusts again. Mutely, she submits to the brutish attack. He grunts and thrusts again. Finally, satiated, he stalks away. Not a word has been uttered.

She stares after him, without resentment, shock or horror--her homely, lined features etched with resignation. Obviously, this was not the first time Mr.Turner had had humped her; nor would it be the last.

Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, is by no means a coherent biography, but a gorgeous riveting film that presents brief, often unconnected excerpts from the latter years of the great British painter William Turner. In a way, Leigh's lush, gauzy, cinematographic techniques, might be compared to the brilliant, infused style that Turner himself developed to create his shimmering watercolor landscapes.

The problem is I don't know how much of the film to trust.

One of the starkest scenes, the scene that must stick in the mind of the majority of the viewers, is the one described above -- where Mr. Turner -- the genius in rendering light long before the French impressionists ever came on the scene -- brutally attacks and has his way with his housekeeper.

In some way, that shocking scene will forever change the way those who see the film will perceive the painter. All well and good you may say. Indeed, it's to the credit of Mike Leigh that he has given us the great Turner with all his warts and blemishes.

Except for the fact that the scene may never have happened. That's according to Mike Leigh himself.

In a packed question and answer session following a screening of the film in at the Curzon Cinema in London, Leigh elaborated on the great amount of time and effort he and his staff had put into researching Turner's life.

But when asked for the factual basis for Turner's sexual attacks on his housekeeper, Leigh's answer was along these lines: "Well, we knew that she had been living with him as his housekeeper for thirty or forty years, and.. it just felt right." There was, Leigh admitted, no hard evidence, that Turner had regularly forced himself on the woman.

To Leigh, that seems to make no difference.

As much as I admire the talent of Mike Leigh, I can't believe the arrogance of that reply.

The film is presented as "An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner's life." There is no indication anywhere that portions are made up, or based on what "felt right" to the director.

Yet, for millions of people who see the film, that is how they will remember Mr. Turner.

Another dramatic scene in the film may never have happened. At one point, Turner has himself lashed to the tall mast of a sailing ship in the midst of a ferocious gale, so he can directly experience a treacherous storm at sea. According to the Tate Britain--which houses a huge collection of Turner's art -- it's most unlikely that Turner ever attempted that deed.

So, now I'm left with the question about the entire film---what was real and what was invented, because it felt right?

The people who turned out the film try to have it both ways: giving the very clear impression that it is based on fact--otherwise why would anyone be interested? While at the same time adding in pivotal scenes that aren't. Are we to believe that they don't have the box office as well as history in mind?

One might wonder how Mike Leigh would respond to some future biographer taking the same liberties with Leigh's life story as Leigh did with Turner's.

Mr. Turner is only the latest in a long list of films supposedly based "in fact" "in reality", "on a real event, or "a true story. Driven by a mix of arrogance and cynicism, the people who makes those films count on the ignorance of the audience to make their fortunes by butchering history.

One such thriller, Argo, revealed how several Americans from the U.S. embassy in Tehran were whisked out of Iran at the height of the hostage crisis, by an incredibly brave and resourceful CIA agent. Except the real hero in the true story was not the CIA agent, but the Canadian ambassador to Iran, who sheltered those Americans and came up with the way to get them out.

But who's going to pay good money to see a movie about a Canadian diplomat? The cliff-hanging conclusion of the film -- without which the picture would never have worked -- was also totally invented.

Much more egregious, as far as public policy goes, was Zero Dark Thirty, supposedly a totally factual account of how the U.S. tracked down and finally zapped Osama Bin Laden. One stark, scene showing a prisoner being water-boarded, made it clear that it was that torture that led to the biggest breakthrough in the chase: the CIA discovering the identity of the trusted courier used by Bin Laden, who ultimately led them to Bin Laden himself. According to several sources, including the latest Senate Committee report, torture had nothing to do with that breakthrough.

But try to make that point to Dick "torture works" Cheney or anyone of the hundreds of millions of people who have seen the film.

If you queried the people responsible for that film, they'd probably shrug and say something like, "it just felt right."