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'Mr. Turner' Is A Snuffling, Growling Work Of Art

Timothy Spall finds beauty in the unlikeliest places as painter J.M.W. Turner. (Sony Pictures Classics)

If you picture landscape painting as a delicate, ethereal, pristine process involving an easel on a hillside and a sunset, Mr. Turner will be an eye-opener.

Tim Spall grunts and snorts his way through the film as J.M.W. Turner in ways that will forever link phlegm and art in the minds of viewers. He spits on his canvases, stabs at them with brushes, smears them with rags, blows powdered pigment at them. His method looks less like painting, than like an attack on the canvas — but lordy, the results: Mists and fogs surrounding shipwrecks, steam locomotives belching fire, everything bathed in the most astonishing light.

Spall may make a grotesque of Turner — piggish, rutting, whoring — but he finds such incandescence in the world around him. And director Mike Leigh lets you see that incandescence as Turner saw it: Everywhere. In sunsets, of course, but also in a woman's corpse washed up on a riverbank, or in the rashes that bloom on the neck of a gargoyle-like housekeeper. You start to see doors and windows in the film as frames around kinetic images that Leigh's put inside them — ships drifting by, hillsides topped by ochre clouds.

Turner, meanwhile, is distracted by beauty elsewhere — there's a landlady who rents him a room by the sea, and who comes to care for him without knowing he's one of England's most celebrated artists. She is a respite for him. A respite from the fist fights of the exhibition hall, from the preening of critics, from family crises, and from his own excesses. At one point, he nearly dies after lashing himself to a ship's mast during a snowstorm so he can really see the light.

But what he sees, say, on a rowing excursion with fellow artists, as a decommissioned three-mast battleship is tugged into harbor to be turned into tables and chairs? The others see the sunset, the ship's masts and the end of an era. Turner sees the steam-driven tugboat and new beginnings.

Turner's painting of the scene, The Fighting Temeraire will, in fact, become his masterpiece. As Mr. Turner is Mike Leigh's — a growling, snuffling, earthy work of art, every frame worthy of framing.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The end of the year means the home stretch in the Oscar's race. And one contender, a movie called "Mr. Turner," premieres today in a few select cities. It's about 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner. We'll hear from the director Mike Leigh just ahead. First, a review from our critic, Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: If you picture landscape painting as a delicate, ethereal, pristine process involving an easel on a hillside and a sunset, "Mr. Turner" will be an eye-opener.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. TURNER")

MONDELLO: Tim Spall grunts and snorts his way through the film as J.M.W. Turner in ways that will forever link phlegm and art in the minds of viewers. He spits on his canvases, stabs at them with brushes, smears them with rags, blows powdered pigment at them. His method looks less like painting than like an attack on the canvas. But lordy, the results - mists and fog surrounding shipwrecks, steam locomotives belching fire, everything bathed in the most astonishing light.

Tim Spall may make a grotesque of Turner - piggish, rutting, whoring - but he finds such incandescence in the world around him. And director Mike Leigh lets you see that incandescence as the painter saw it - everywhere - in sunsets, of course, but also in a woman's corpse washed up on a riverbank, or in the rashes that bloom on the neck of a gargoyle-like housekeeper. You start to see doors and windows in the film as frames around kinetic images that Leigh's put inside them - ships drifting by, hillsides topped by ochre clouds. Turner, meanwhile, is distracted by beauty elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. TURNER")

TIMOTHY SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Would you be so kind as to look out of the window?

MARION BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) Sure. What am I looking at?

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) The tip of your nose to the curve of your brow - you put me in mind of a Greek sculpture I'm familiar with - of Aphrodite - goddess of love.

BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) Oh, no one's ever said that about my nose before - this old snout.

MONDELLO: That's a landlady who rents him a room by the sea and who comes to care for him without knowing he's one of England's most celebrated artists. She is a respite for him, a respite from the fistfights of the exhibition hall, from the preening of critics, from family crises and from his own excesses. At one point, he nearly dies after lashing himself to a ship's mast during a snowstorm so he can really see the light. But what he sees, say, on a rowing excursion with fellow artists, as a decommissioned three-mast battleship is tugged into harbor to be turned into tables and chairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. TURNER")

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) There she is.

MARK STANLEY: (As Clarkson Stanfield) The saucy Temeraire.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Going to her death, I fear.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As unidentified character) She's served her time.

STANLEY: (As Clarkson Stanfield) The auctioneer's hammer has struck that final blow.

MONDELLO: The others see the sunset, the ship's mast and the end of an era. Turner sees the steam-driven tugboat and new beginnings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. TURNER")

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) We're observing the future - spout, iron, steam.

STANLEY: (As Clark Stanfield) She'd make a fine subject for you to paint, Turner.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Oh, is that so, Stanley? I shall cogitate upon it. Thank you.

MONDELLO: It will, in fact, become his masterpiece, as "Mr. Turner" is Mike Leigh's - a growling, snuffling, earthy work of art, every frame worthy of framing. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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