February 2015Volume 20Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

“Mr. Turner” and the issue of rape

I recently saw the film “Mr. Turner” that brought to light issues that are often times relevant in many aspects of the various areas of law we practice, and certainly relevant to women as a whole. Overall, I found the film to be thought-provoking, particularly as to the issue of rape and consent.

“Mr. Turner” is a biographical drama film on the life of J.M.W. Turner, an English painter in the late 18th century. Turner is played by Timothy Spall who received several “best actor” awards for his role in the play. The film begins at a point when Turner is already a famous painter, and deals with the challenges of life, such as a bitter ex-wife constantly badgering him about child support and his non-existent relationship with his children, the excruciating pain of losing his father, finding love in a recently widowed, older woman, and, as I shall discuss more in depth, his unusual relationship with his loyal, humble housekeeper who was devotedly in love with Turner, had a progressing skin disease, and whom Turner seemed to forget existed except for when he would decide to exploit her sexually.

Her name is Hannah Danby. Further research on the actual life of Danby reveals that she was Turner’s housekeeper for over 40 years and suffered from psoriasis.1 The actual disease was not revealed in the film, yet it was clear that something was very, very wrong. Although Turner did not seem to notice her existence, Danby was like the big elephant in the room and the film director Mike Leigh made sure that the audience noticed her, and we did. We rooted for her and felt her pain as she lovingly doted on Turner, anxiously awaited his arrival, and desperately sought to make eye contact with him, which he never did. And as the film progressed, we saw as her skin condition deteriorated and it looked as if her skin was falling off, and we thought, ‘surely Turner would notice her now!’ Yet he did not.

As a result, it came as a shock when on one occasion, Turner, without really looking at her, sexually molested her, and on another occasion, forced himself on Danby and raped her. But was it really rape? It could be argued that Danby “consented” to Turner touching her and forcing himself on her from the look of sheer delight on Danby’s face that Turner would honor her with such attention! However, only the audience noted her delight, Turner did not seem to care whether she consented or not.

The audience was left conflicted. Should we be outraged? Or happy that Turner finally noticed her, even if it was for selfish motives?

I was outraged. Clearly he took advantage of his position as her employer/master. Danby did not want to be raped, she wanted to be loved; but as the poor female servant in love with her master and not deserving of anything, she settled with rape.

Further research into 18th century workplace conditions in London revealed that employer-employee, master-servant, rape was quite common during that time. In fact, female servants were expected to make themselves available to their male masters and other men in the household.2 These women, like Danby, were poor farmer’s daughters from the countryside who were naive, young and desperate for wages.

Although the film director tried to cushion the blow by focusing on Danby’s love for Turner, we need to call it for what it is: rape. And although Turner did not do anything that was out of the ordinary for his time, it does not make it right.

The fact that a film has caused me to think about issues of rape, consent, and the problems with 18th century domestic servitude in London means that it was an excellent film and I would highly recommend it. The film lacked in some areas, such as no storyline with a plot for the audience to follow, which can cause some viewers to feel disappointed at the end with no conclusion to the various conflicts the film leaves unresolved. Yet Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall brilliantly brought 18th century London to life along with all of the cultural positives and negatives that come with it. ■


1. Sexton, David, Mr. Turner - film review: Timothy Spall is Magnificent as Turner in this Mike Leigh Masterclass, London Evening Standard, Oct. 31, 2014, updated Jan. 4, 2015, <http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/mr-turner--film-review-timothy-spall-plays-turner-magnificently-in-this-mike-leigh-masterclass-9830122.html>.

2. Ardelie, Susan, Making History Tart & Titillating: Domestic Servants - Part 1 - Women, Feb. 16, 2010, <https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/domestic-servants-part-1-women/>.

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