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This isn't the first time that Mike Leigh has been hailed as the creator of masterpieces. He's won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and been nominated for seven Oscars, all for movies that focus on the challenges average people face. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC says Leigh takes a similar approach to the revered painter.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: Mike Leigh's addressed historical figures once before - Gilbert and Sullivan - in his 1996 film "Topsy-Turvy." But Leigh says even there he started from the principle that the ordinary - things like family, jobs and the actual work that goes into creating operas or paintings is what's really interesting.
MIKE LEIGH: So to take iconic famous people like J.M.W Turner, or as in the case of "Topsy-Turvy," like Gilbert and Sullivan, for me the attraction or the whole point is to look at them not as icons but to see them as ordinary people. That's to say to see them as human beings. The fact is everything is interesting that we do, because human beings are fascinating. Our work is very much part of all of that, because in the end, this is about a guy that rolls up his sleeves and does it.
MOVSHOVITZ: Leigh's Turner spends his time traveling the countryside sketching scenes, in his studio thrusting paintbrush at canvas or trying to sell the finished product to wealthy patrons. Critic Harlan Jacobson, host of the national Talk Cinema film series, says Leigh captures the artist at work.
HARLAN JACOBSON: I absolutely thought that I was in the presence of one of the most powerful scenes I'd ever seen about the making of art, when as Turner, Timothy Spall, in order to achieve an effect that he wants, spits on the canvas in some kind of fury - spit, spit, spit - because art is made out of spit and grit. And it's a private joke to him that later the Swells, you know, with the top hats will come and look at it and not understand that it involves the guy's bodily fluids right up there staring them in the face.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. TURNER")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm struck by the column of bright white placed precisely off-center here, applied over the darkened background in pastel, contrasting with the scarlet and ochre hue.
MOVSHOVITZ: Director Mike Leigh says that stories about artists typically imagine them to be just as romantic and elevated as the work. But Leigh's fascinated by how the inelegant J.M.W. Turner produced ecstatic art. Leigh and his collaborators did extensive research on the painter and his time, then took that to the cast and crew and improvised, as he's always done in his films, to get at the essence of the characters.
LEIGH: You can read and research and try and understand how things were, how people were, what they did, you know, what happened, et cetera, et cetera. But it only exists, however copiously you may research it - it then only exists in your imagination. It doesn't exist, because it existed 150 years ago.
Then the job is to bring to life what you imagine from what you've read. And that is a creative process. But there is absolutely no doubt whatever that if you got into a time machine, when you went back, what you would see and experience would probably bear absolutely no resemblance to what we've created.
MOVSHOVITZ: In spite of time and distance, critic Harlan Jacobson thinks Leigh has found a kindred spirit in Turner.
JACOBSON: Turner was somebody who came out of the movement of the sublime in which landscape painting in Europe wasn't simply about faithfully reproducing landscape, but it was about injecting into the brushstrokes itself how you felt about the world that you were painting. And I think that Turner says that about Mike Leigh - that his films are not neutral films. They have definite points-of-view about class, about people, about England. And it's all there in the art, and he's an artist.
MOVSHOVITZ: As was J.M.W. Turner, says Mike Leigh, because the painter's work speaks to fundamental questions of human life.
LEIGH: He was concerned with and captured the essence of weather, of light, of the skies, of seascapes, of landscapes. And for many, many people, certainly people in England, you know, you look at a certain kind of sky and you think God, this is Turner-esque, because Turner wasn't simply logging or recording some local 19th-century phenomenon. He was actually dealing with a universal experience of existing on this planet.
MOVSHOVITZ: And Mike Leigh's film, "Mr. Turner," is very much about a man trying to figure out his place in the world. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
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