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The Strange World — And Life — Of 'Mr. Turner'


This is FRESH AIR. Now 71 years old, the English director Mike Leigh continues his prolific career with the new movie "Mr. Turner," a biographical portrait of the great 19th century English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner. Once again, Leigh's stock company of actors researched and helped create their own roles. Foremost among them is Timothy Spall, who won this year's Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle awards for best actor. Critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I've come to dread award season bio-pics, most of them middlebrow Oscar bait. But now comes Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner." And Leigh makes other directors look like simpletons. The film has none of the usual thematic sign posts or flashbacks to childhood traumas that spell out why someone was driven to achieve greatness. What Leigh does have, in this portrait of J. M. W. Turner, is Turner's art, which remains too mysterious to pin down. In glancing brushstrokes, he gives us the strange world and life of a man whose mind was barely engaged by anything but his painting.

Timothy Spall is Turner, a stout cockney in a top hat, who strides purposefully along beaches and from one end of Leigh's widescreen to the other, pausing to scrutinize the light the way a dog sniffs the air. That's what obsesses him - light - its texture, its frangibility. He uses that word - frangibility. It means brittleness, suggesting that light splinters and refracts into many colors, which it does in Turner's art. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope allude to Turner's work in their own landscape shots, not to make the film look like a painting come to life but to suggest what Turner saw before he got to work transforming it.

Spall's performance is extremely good and extreme. He sticks out his thick lower lip and often grunts in lieu of speaking. Mr. Turner sets the record for grunts. Oddly though, when Turner does speak, his vocabulary is full of big words like frangibility. And just when you pegged him for a misfit loner, he'll stride boldly into the main hall of the Royal Academy of Arts and slap the backs of fellow landscape painters setting up for a big exhibit.


JOE WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Good morning, Mr. Turner.

TIMOTHY SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) No, it's Billy (unintelligible).

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Delighted you could join us.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts).

ROGER ASHTON-GRIFFTHS: (As Henry William Pickersgill) Damn fine spectacle this year, Billy.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Aha. Very fine day to you, Mr. Stothard.

EDWARD DE SOUZA: (As Thomas Stothard) (Laughter). Mr. Turner, sir.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Constable.

JAMES FLEET: (As John Constable) Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Jonesy. Gordo.

RICHARD BREMMER: (As George Jones) William.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) The hanging committee.

>>BREMMER (As George Jones) Do you approve?

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Did well out.

BREMMER: (As George Jones) Gratzi.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Prego (laughter).

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Did everything be to your satisfaction, Mr. Turner?

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) It is indeed, Mr. President. It's a splendid cornucopia.

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Cornucopia?

TOM EDDEN: (As CR Leslie) Good morning, Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Good morning to you, Mr. Leslie, Robby.

JAMIE THOMAS KING: (As David Roberts) Good morning, Mr. Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) My other piece, where is it located?

EDDEN: (As CR Leslie) We placed it in the anteroom.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) The anteroom? (Grunts).

EDELSTEIN: Artist bio-pics tend to be laughably overfull of exposition. But in "Mr. Turner," Mike Leigh would rather glide over details than be caught spoon-feeding his audience. He's arrogant about such things, which I kind of love him for. We have to infer the twisted nature of the relationship between Turner and his shy, rather simple, housekeeper Hannah Danby played by Dorothy Atkinson. We don't know why Turner coldly refuses to acknowledge publicly the children he had with Hannah's aunt played by Ruth Sheen. And I don't think Turner does either. He's a mystery to himself. He's not a cruel man, merely selfish, childlike and emotionally stunted. He concentrates on other realms.

In one scene, Scottish physicist Mary Somerville, played by Lesley Manville, arrives to demonstrate the magnetic properties of violet, and as she gazes on the spectrum, she tells Turner, all things on earth are connected. The philosophy is right there in Turner's work, where the presence of humans suffuses the landscape and vice versa. Finishing a picture as it hangs in the Academy, Turner spits on the canvas and adds a puff of yellow paint dust to make the colors radiate beyond the boundaries of objects. When he's done, the paintings seem magically indefinite, like the movie.

Near the end, the photographer, one of the first, sets up shop in London, and Turner poses while brooding that painters could be supplanted once people have access to literal reproductions. Then he decides the reality he sees will never be captured by a camera. He's right. But thanks to Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall, the medium of cinema does pretty great by him.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

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