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Cannes Day 2: ‘Mr. Turner” premiere

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Acclaimed British director Mike Leigh greeted the press on Thursday after the morning premiere of his new biographical film that focuses on the last two decades in the life of British artist J.M.W. Turner. It’s simply called “Mr. Turner.” And it features a brilliant performance by Timothy Spall as the artist who combined great beauty and horror in his depictions of the natural world.

Leigh weaves a tale of a man who’s still haunted by his mother’s mental illness — and his subsequent inability to make meaningful connections with women, especially his alienated first wife. His only real relationship is with his father, who dies early in the movie. He also has a rather emotionally stunted relationship with his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he exploits sexually.

But this all changes when he visits the seaside and begins to form a bond with the landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). From his seaside rental, Turner begins to explore the countryside in search of inspiration for his nautical paintings.

The performance by Spall makes the film more than worthwhile. But the true beauty of “Mr. Turner” lies in the dramatic cinematography by Dick Pope. Obviously working to create a Turner-esque palette, Pope uses his cinematography to foreshadow some of the most memorable paintings to emerge in the first half of the 19th century.

As with most great artists, Turner wasn’t fully appreciated in his lifetime. The movie details how various members of society, especially the aristocracy, disdained his works. And there’s little romanticism about Turner himself. As Spall said at a press conference after the screening, Turner “was a funny-looking fat little man, and so am I.”

Throughout the film, Spall makes Turner grunt in the most odd situations. But Spall says there’s a reason that he developed the grunting style in his portrayal, because Turner was a man whose mind would race with words, but he couldn’t always find a way of enunciating his thoughts, so grunting seemed appropriate.

“Turner was a painter of the sublime,” Spall said, and he tried to capture on canvas “the tension … between the beauty and horrors of nature.”

Or, as Leigh put it later on, “You just try to get down to the hard rot of life.”

In that regard, “Mr. Turner” is yet another example of Leigh’s efforts to document the contrast between dreams and hard realities. It’s a preoccupation that can be seen in most of his earlier films, including “Life Is Sweet,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Vera Drake.” None of those movies, however, can compare, at least visually, with “Mr. Turner.”