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Leigh brings Turner’s life to Cannes Spall brings great painter to life as grunting genius

CANNES, May 15, (Agencies): With colours from the artist’s own palette and a central performance that explores the ‘art of the grunt’, British director Mike Leigh brought the turbulent life of English artist J.M.W. Turner to the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday. Leigh, a Cannes regular who has had five films in competition for the top Palme d’Or prize and won it in 1996 for “Secrets and Lies”, is going head to head with another veteran British director, Ken Loach. His “Mr Turner” and Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall”, about an Irish communist, are among 18 films vying for the top honour at the world’s most prestigious festival, while 100 or more are being shown here in other forums. Leigh’s film brought Turner’s huge canvases of ships tossed in stormy seas to a Cannes that this year is basking in steady sunshine.

“Turner of the great painters of all times anywhere really, a great radical revolutionary painter,” Leigh told reporters, explaining why he chose to focus on the 19th-century pre-Impressionist. “I felt there was scope for what could be a fascinating film because of what may seem the tension between this very mortal, in some ways flawed and very inspired individual and this epic work, this spiritual way that he had of distilling, capturing and expressing the world.”

The festival attracts some 127,000 people to the Mediterranean seaside town. Many queue for hours for tickets, or hold up small printed signs asking if anyone has a spare. Some 4,000 journalists are here to cover the comings and goings of stars, directors and producers. Leigh, whose films are known for improvised dialogue made up on the set, said his “Mr Turner” was no different. But he noted that a huge amount of research had gone into finding out about Turner, his painting techniques and his unconventional life in early 19th-century England. “You can read all the books in the world and rehearse for years, but that doesn’t make things happen in front of the camera,” Leigh said. “You still have to create a characterisation, you have to breathe flesh and blood into it.”

British actor Timothy Spall turns in a hugely engaging portrayal of a very difficult person. His Turner is a somewhat simian, heavyset working-class man in later life who has a deep attachment to his father, relates awkwardly to women and, despite his deep intellect, often communicates by grunting. Spall said he had studied painting for two years in order to convincingly portray a painter who invented his own techniques, including spitting on his canvases to help smudge the paint.

And the guttural noises?
“I think the grunting grew in this organically, out of this incredible instinctive and emotional autodidactic intellectual man who had a billion, a zillion things to say but never said it, so he encapsulated it in imploded grunts,” Spall said.
“That’s how he expresses himself a lot of the time because he’s got this burning thing inside him,” Spall said, proceeding to demonstrate the sound he makes in the movie and adding: “That’s the art of the grunt.”
Cinematographer Dick Pope said he had tried to recapture Turner’s own colour palette by studying the painter’s works in the Tate Britain museum and researching the colours he used.
“We tried to tell the story with the pictures with the colours that he used at that time,” Pope said.
 Leigh drew rapturous reviews Thursday for a lush historical portrait of painter JMW Turner as the race for gold kicked off at the Cannes Film Festival.

Timothy Spall, a character actor best known as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies and Winston Churchill in “The King’s Speech”, delivered a grunting, snorting, spitting, womanising warts-and-all performance in “Mr Turner” of the tortured Romantic landscape painter.
Both the daily Guardian and Time Out London gave the period drama a maximum five stars, calling the latest from the filmmaker behind “Vera Drake” and “Secrets and Lies” “extraordinary” and “a dazzling feat of confidence”.
David Ketchum, a contributor to industry bible Variety, posted on Twitter that “Mr Turner” was “impeccably crafted, absolute cinematic perfection” while Nigel Smith of US movie website Indiewire hailed the performances as “across the board magnificent”.

Spall brings the great British painter of stormy seas and fiery skies to life as a gruff, grunting genius.
“What made us the perfect match, apart from anything, is he was a funny-looking, fat little man, and so am I,” said Spall. “But as far as his soul was concerned, that took a lot more research.” As the 19th-century painter, Spall is single-minded in capturing the dramatic light that composed his landscape masterworks. But though his intellect and talent comes through, Spall’s Turner is little like the ideal of the great artist. With his fuzzy mutton chops and lumbering stride, he’s grubby, randy and curmudgeonly. “It’s about how genius is not in always the most romantic of packages,” said Spall. “Most geniuses are strange.” Sony Pictures Classics will release “Mr. Turner” in North America in December, positioning it for an awards season push. Right now, it’s in the hunt with 17 other films for Cannes’ top award, the Palme d’Or.
Leigh is famous for a filmmaking style that relies on improvisation-heavy rehearsals rather than a script. It’s an approach that’s often elicited acclaimed performances, including Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake” and David Thewlis in “Naked.”

The director had long desired to make a movie about Turner, and focused his meticulously researched film on the last 25 years of Turner’s life. The painter died in 1851. Leigh said he was fascinated by “this very mortal and in some ways flawed” individual who was creating such epic works. “He sees beyond the sea and the sky,” said Leigh. “He makes us see an experience that goes beyond the surface.” Two years before beginning rehearsals, Leigh urged Spall to train his painting skills in preparation for the role. For Spall, Turner was “a painter of the sublime” who instinctually saw “the beauty and the horror of nature,” even if he appeared to be a humble, somewhat brutish working-class man. More often than not in the 2 ¬ž hour film, Spall’s Turner expresses himself with nothing more than a grunt.

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