CANNES, France: 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 Thursday to excellent reviews and praise 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 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,” Spall said.
“And so am I, 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 featured in 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 muttonchops and lumbering stride, he’s grubby, randy and curmudgeonly.
“It’s about how genius is not in always the most romantic of packages,” Spall said. “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 the Palme d’Or.
Leigh won the award in 1996 for “Secrets & Lies,” co-starring Spall.
Leigh is famous for a filmmaking style that relies on improvisation-heavy rehearsals rather than a script. It has 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 the life of the painter, who 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,” Leigh said.
“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 150-minute film, Spall’s Turner expresses himself with no 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,” Spall said.
“People who sneeze and can redecorate the room have a wonderful time. People do that [grunting sound] are repressing something.”
Cannes Film Festival runs until May 25.