Mr. Turner: Mike Leigh’s Biopic of Celebrated Painter, Starring Timothy Spall

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Cannes Film Fest 2014 (In Competition)

Better known for his cinema verite features about ordinary and contemporary British lives (usually of the working-class), Mike Leigh has deviated from the norm just once with the honroable biopic, “Topsy Turvy” (1999), a chronicle of the lives of the legendary Gilbert and Sullivan, focusing on the tensions that prevailed in their collaboration.

Now, fifteen years later, comes Leigh’s second biopic of  a legendary artist, Mr. Turner, his exquisitely detailed, brilliantly performed chronicle of  JMW Turner, arguably England’s most celebrated painter.

mr._turner_3As expected by now of the meticulous director, Leigh devotes as much attention to the eccentric artist as to the immediate art world and the broader social context of the early Victorian era.

Though it is only the festival second day, Timothy Spall, who renders an astounding, fully realized performance as the painter, emerges as a top contender for the Best Actor kudo.  A regular member of Leigh’s troupe of noted actors, Leigh has usually played supporting roles, so it’s doubly rewarding to see him assuming and commanding center-stage.

 mr._turner_5Most films about artists (especially painters) rely on sharp imagery, especially lighting, and Dick Pope, a reliable if still underestimated collaborator, provides Leigh with a visual look that’s not only stunning in its own work but also make allusion to the iconic imagery in the painter’s work.

Though the film has a running time of two and half hours, there’s never a dull moment in the narrative, which shrewdly centers on Turner’s final years, after he has established fame and reputation.

With characteristic rigor and meticulous mise-en-scene, Leigh has made both an art film and a filmic art that should please intelligent viewers seeking non-conventional movies, whether or not they are familiar with Turner’s life and work.

A longer review will be published later today.