CANNES, France (AP) — In Mike Leigh’s biopic of J.M.W. Turner, Timothy Spall brings the great British painter of stormy seas and fiery skies to life as a gruff, grunting genius.
Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday to excellent reviews and raves for Spall, the veteran 57-year-old British actor. Though recognized by many for playing Mr. Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” films, “Mr. Turner” is a deserved leading man turn for Spall, one that made him the star of Cannes’ second day.
“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 won the award in 1996 for “Secrets & Lies,” which co-starred Spall.
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 ½ hour film, Spall’s Turner expresses himself with nothing more than a grunt.
“The grunting grew organically out of this incredibly instinctive, emotional, autodidactic, intellectual man who had a billion — a zillion — things to say but never said it,” said Spall. “People who sneeze and can redecorate the room have a wonderful time. People do that (grunting sound) are repressing something.”
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