A couple of weeks ago — I don’t recall the context — a reader asked me who I thought deserved consideration for an Honorary Oscar in the near future. Among the names I threw into the hat was Mike Leigh. The 70-year-old British writer-director may still be very much an active talent, but over the course of seven nominations (two for Best Director, five for Best Original Screenplay) in 16 years, Leigh hasn’t really come close to cracking the winner’s circle: his films may just be too intimately English, and his workshop-heavy creative process too unconventional, for the larger Academy ever to “get” him. And that’s a shame.
“What about the Turner film?” the reader countered. Well, quite. Leigh’s upcoming biopic of legendary British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner — most famous for his vast, light-filled, semi-abstract visions of land and sea — certainly looks a more Academy-friendly proposition on paper than, say, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” promising early 19th-century period splendor and stormy human drama of creation and self-destruction. It also has the hook of being Leigh’s long-gestating passion project: he’s worked for 20-odd years to get the as-yet-untitled film off the ground.
Of course, Leigh has traveled this terrain before: his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan biopic “Topsy-Turvy” was a critics’ pet and earned Leigh his second writing nod. (It won for its costumes and makeup, making it Leigh’s only film to date to take home any Oscar gold.) Could his Turner film — which reunites him with actor and recurring collaborator Timothy Spall for the first time since 2002’s “All or Nothing” — catch on a bigger way? We’ll see, but for now, the first image from his latest suggests a robust period piece.
The film is currently in post-production in London, readying for a 2014 premiere; Sony Pictures Classics has already secured the US rights. I would bet on it showing up at Cannes next year: the French festival has a mixed history with Leigh (“Secrets and Lies” won the Palme d’Or, while “Vera Drake” was controversially rejected by selectors), but I can’t see them turning down a film that’s this personal to the director.
Other cast members include Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson and Paul Jesson, all of whom have worked with Leigh before; other returning regulars include Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (“The Illusionist”) and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran (“Anna Karenina”). TV-reared production designer Suzie Davies is new to the fold.