Cannes Check 2014: Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr. Turner’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, the first of two British veterans in the lineup: Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner.”

The director: Mike Leigh (British, 71 years old). Few filmmakers have essayed the mundane woes (and occasional joys) of Britain's working-to-middle classes with the vivid specificity of Mike Leigh, though given his distinctive vernacular and customarily heightened sense of the everyday, it's not quite accurate to classify him as a kitchen-sink realist. Either way, as both a playwright and filmmaker, he's as significant and influential a figure on the UK cultural lanscape as John Osborne or Alan Bennett.

A RADA acting student turned art school graduate, he worked as an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company before turning to the screen. He directed his first theatrical feature, “Bleak Moments,” in 1971, but worked predominantly in television for the following 15 years, making his name in particular with the satirical teleplay “Abigail's Party.” He returned to cinemas with 1988's “High Hopes”; two years later, “Life is Sweet” won a number of US critics' awards. The real breakthrough, of course, came with 1996's Palme d'Or winner and Best Picture Oscar nominee “Secrets and Lies.” Bar a moderate reaction to follow-up film “Career Girls,” Leigh's reputation hasn't slipped since, while he's racked up seven Oscar nominations. 

Leigh is arguably most famous for his unique workshopping process, whereby his scripts are developed in rehearsal with his actors, who aren't always privy to the larger narrative; it's what accounts for the lived-in energy and frequently fluid verbality of his films, though it's often erroneously described as pure improv. That theatrical grounding is also evident in his loyal company of recurring actors, “Mr. Turner” stars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville among them.

The talent: Spall was a mid-period Leigh regular — featuring in “Life is Sweet” and “Secrets and Lies” — the director and actor haven't collaborated since 2002's “All or Nothing,” but the title role here marks a prominent return. In the supporting cast are Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville, the two leading ladies of Leigh's film “Another Year”; other Leigh alumni in the ensemble include Peter Wight and Sylvestra Le Touzel. Roger Ashton-Griffiths also stars as Alfred Hitchcock in Cannes opener “Grace of Monaco.”

Leigh, as usual, takes the screenplay credit. Most of his regular below-the-line team is in place, including cinematographer Dick Pope (an Oscar nominee for a few years back for “The Illusionist”), editor Jon Gregory and composer Gary Yershon, who worked on Leigh's last two films. Jacqueline Durran, who won an Oscar last year for “Anna Karenina,” has been Leigh's regular costume designer since 2002, but has a larger showcase here than his work usually affords her. New to the feature crew (having worked on Leigh's 2012 Olympic short “A Running Jump”) is production designer Suzie Davies, who similarly has much to work with here. 

The pitch: Leigh returns to heritage cinema, after a fashion, with “Mr. Turner,” his first period piece since “Vera Drake,” and only his second non-fiction feature after 1999's “Topsy-Turvy.” Like that Gilbert & Sullivan-focused romp, this is a biopic of a British cultural giant, and has been Leigh's passion project for decades — he has described it as his most expensive and visually extravagant film to date. As it would need to be when the “Mr.” in question is 18th/19th-century Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, perhaps Britain's most celebrated artist and famously dubbed “the painter of light.”

In private, Turner was a difficult, eccentric figure: Leigh's film examines the last 25 years of his life, as he comes to terms with the death of his beloved father, toys sexually with his housekeeper, forms a close bond with a seaside landlady and divides public opinion with his work. Don't expect a regular Wikipedia biopic from Leigh; I've been told this one is surprisingly earthy, willing to dwell on less savory aspects of its subject, with a big, bold performance from Spall.

The prestige: Leigh has remained an auteur who commands respect in multiple circles, from the comparatively mainstream members of the Academy to the more highbrow elders of the film festival circuit. This is his fifth time in Competition at Cannes. In terms of jury awards, his first two were his most successful: “Naked” won the Best Director award in 1993, while “Secrets and Lies” followed with the Palme d'Or. Leigh also served on the jury at the 1997 fest, famously clashing with president Isabelle Adjani; he's never headed the panel, but had that honor at Berlin two years ago. 

The buzz: Strong. Leigh's consistency gives us little reason to doubt him anyway, but word from advance screenings is that this is an unexpectedly robust, tactile film, with Spall giving the kind of imposing, vanity-free turn that Best Actor campaigns are built on. Sony Pictures Classics seem confident in the film, whether it catches the Cannes jury's fancy or not; if all goes well, the historical scale and themes of artistic impulse could make this one of Leigh's most awards-friendly films.

The odds: Paddy Power are very optimistic about Leigh's chances, putting him in second place with odds of 7-1, but I sense a bit of local favoritism there. (Jigsaw Lounge is a little more cautious with 10-1 odds.) Leigh's last film, “Another Year,” entered the Competition as a frontrunner, bolstered by a warm critical response, only to win nothing from the jury — who may have felt that the film, however accomplished, wasn't enough of a stretch for him. “Mr. Turner” may benefit from being more of a formal reach for the director, though I sense Spall is represents the film's best shot at a prize.

The date: “Mr. Turner” will be the first Competition film out the gate, premiering on Thursday, May 15.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll look at “Jimmy's Hall,” the latest from Leigh's compatriot and contemporary, Ken Loach.