In a year when the ongoing Cannes Film Festival
is strong on British presence, Mike Leigh's biopic on the 19th century romantic landscape painter, JMW Turner, called Mr Turner, is an engaging competition piece. Tipped to get a Best Actor Palm for its lead character, Timothy Spall (who essays Turner), the movie in Leigh's words was a "natural cinematic subject that hadn't been done before. The tension between the flawed but passionate character and his extraordinary work seemed worth exploring".
Much like Grace of Monaco
, Mr Turner is not, strictly speaking, a documentary, but "a dramatic distillation". Leigh takes plenty of artistic licence to tell the story of a genius, albeit a story that is based on accepted truths about the man and his work.
And mind you, it is never easy to make a film on fictionalised art history, which can topple, as we have seen in some of the earlier works by other directors. There is always this danger of the movie appearing like a hagiography and/or presumptuous psychologising.
Although Mr Turner may not appeal to a wide audience, given its subject, the film is bound to weather stormy waters sailing on the shoulders of Timothy Spall. The actor is just brilliant, infusing into his part the eccentric genius of a great 19th century artist - who was completely wedded to his art, often treating his wife and children with reckless disdain. There is one scene where he ties himself to the mast of a ship as it rolls and pitches in a terrible tempest: the man wanted to paint a hurricane and had to have a first-hand experience of it.
As a painter - the magnificence of whose work is captured most splendidly by Leigh through several breathtaking shots of nature and landscape - Turner is a proud man whose lust for life was well known. And Leigh presents a very balanced picture of the man, and we are shown his warts as we are his wonderful works. Plus, the detailing of the period and the way the scenes have been mounted are par excellence.
Mr Turner not only captures the painter's passion for painting, but also his great love for his father, and this relationship has been spelt out in a matter-of-fact manner. It never seems dramatic, it never goes overboard. Turner's housekeeper - who is treated as a menial but is sexually abused, and the keeper of a Margate boarding house who eventually becomes his lover - are well etched out figures that make Mr Turner gripping.
However, the English that is spoken in Leigh's creation can be difficult to understand, and it may not be a bad idea to run subtitles. Something that the other British master, Ken Loach, had done in some of his pictures. (Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)