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Cannes Diary Day 3: Mr Turner & Timbuktu

Diana Drumm is reporting from Cannes for The Film Experience on two new films that have won strong reviews.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner
Mike Leigh’s latest (and the current Palme d’Or frontrunner though we're only a few days into the festival) opens on a pastoral landscape of seemingly neverending fields. A windmill in the middle-ground and sunlight speckling through the vastness give hints of perspective. As the camera lingers, two women ease their way into frame and jolt the viewer into the 19th century. Chatting back and forth and carrying their errands’ loads, they breathe human life into the painterly image (lensed by Leigh's regular cinematographer, Oscar nominee Dick Pope). The camera follows this humble pair until it spots a graying stout figure staring off into the field and sketching near-furiously. Sticking out like a sore crooked-toothed thumb in this panorama, this is J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), the controversial but influential British painter best remembered for his Romantic oil painting landscape and seascapes though he also worked in watercolor.

Spanning the final quarter decade of the artist's life, Mr. Turner eases through the artist’s autumn loves, losses and disappointments. The film opens with Turner leading the life of a discontented bachelor. His ex (Ruth Sheen who led Leigh's last, Another Year) and two daughters live elsewhere, though they call on him regularly enough to nag and harbinger guilt about his lack of involvement in their lives. His two main companions are his father (Paul Jesson), who acts as his studio assistant buying paints and hosting potential clients, and his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), who he occasionally rogers from behind. Their relationship resembles a bizarrely reticent S&M relationship more than institutionalized employer-employee rape.  

More after the jump...

Spall’s Turner is gruff, grumbling and grotesquely mannered. With a Londoner accent that will give even English-speaking audiences pause, Turner's grunts denote everything from agreement to confusion to sexual gratification (this last one being particularly beastly). While standing in front of his canvas, instead of reaching for a solvent, Turner spits in his hand and uses the saliva to blend his paint stroke. This isn’t to say that he is totally lacking in charm. When wooing his last love, an age-appropriate innkeeper (Marion Bailey), he compares her brow and nose to a statue of Aphrodite.  

Turner's work was openly mocked at timesAs the film progresses, Turner in his own very particular way, weathers the loss of loved ones and negative reviews from critics, Queen and public alike (Thackeray dubs his work “sublime or ridiculous,” Victoria declaims one of his paintings as a “yellow mess”. He even stumbles on a publically staged farce with his name as a punch line). Going one step further, the painter weathers a literal storm. Going all “method,” Turner has himself tied to a ship’s mast pre-storm in order to better know (or master) the turbulent elements he paints. Needless to say, this does not do wonders for his health.

As a biopic, Mr. Turner not only acts as a full-bodied portrait of the artist, but also a portrait of the English Romantic movement and the times in which he lived. As with Topsy Turvy (1999), Mike Leigh's previous biopic about famous creatives (Gilbert & Sullivan in that case) by following this singular genius, the audience is allowed access not only to their inner circle but a wider artistic community and 19th century Britain itself, bringing to life a long gone era we can only decipher through our access to art and literature like Turner's oil paintings and skewed memoirs of the upper classes and intelligentsia (John Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, makes a delightful appearance as a prettily pretentious prat). In so doing, the film also encompasses a multitude of transcendient universal battles – art vs. criticism, instinct vs. analysis, beastly lust vs. heartrending love, rural countryside vs. impending industry, etc. – without ever faltering into heavy-handed generalizations.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a heartrending look at a rural community trying to maintain its way of life after an outside militant force moves in and enforces Sharia law restricting music, smoking, unsupervised visits between unmarried men and women, and the like. In the midst of the upheaval but on the outskirts of Timbuktu, a family of three (or four if you include their 12 year-old hired hand) lives off of the land and their small herd of eight cattle. When a local fisherman kills off this family’s favorite cow named “GPS,” the father Kidane goes to confront him, with a gun in tow, and a life-altering shot is fired. With the new Jihadi force handling the situation, Kidane ends up in prison without due evidence or a fair trial. All the while his family back home has no idea where he is or what’s happened.   

It’s even worse for those living in the city with the government sentencing innocent people left and right from 40 lashes for a young woman singing in the privacy of her own home to a man and woman being publically stoned to death. Exemplifying the sham justice of the new regime, a young militant decides to take a local girl for his wife. After trying the “proper” steps, he meets with her mother and communicates his intentions through a prone-to-paraphrasing translator, leading to some initially funny, slightly off communications. But when he is refused (the mother is discouraged by the impropriety of the situation as he's a stranger and her husband isnt even there) he takes his chosen bride by force, setting off another string of tragic events. 

At one point in the film in what might well be an ominous foreshadowing, Kidane’s young daughter on the outskirts of town,  runs determinedly in an uncertain direction, looking for her father and mother. But where can she run to? There's no resolution in sight for the people of Timbuktu, whose world flipped from peaceful albeit poor rural existence on the edge of nowhere to violent end of the earth desolation with one regime change. Sissako relentlessly captures the hopeless struggle and inner dynamics of this community.

 Day 1 Arrival & Opening Night | Day 2 Grace of Monaco | Day 4 Amour Fou & The Blue Room | Day 5? The Homesman Press Conference  and The Homesman Review | Day 7 Mommy, Maps to the Stars &  Two Days One Night

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Reader Comments (5)

Both of these look fantastic. This year's already seems to be shaping up as a strong slate.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Guess people ranting about Grace of Monaco and that Egoyan film jumped to soon to declare this Cannes a disaster.

From the sounds of this these films both are pretty great. I expected as much from Leigh but Timbuktu sounds like a real find for the In Competition.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I am so excited for Mr Turner but only because i love Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake, his other two period pieces. I have yet to be excited for it on its own... but maybe that's because i'm not a big Timothy Spall fan.

that said, I love Dick Pope as a cinematographer so i'm excited he's getting good reviews for this

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm happy that Mr. Turner is getting great reviews as I knew Mike Leigh would deliver as he's one of the best filmmakers working today. I'm interested in Timbuktu.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I'm excited for Saint Laurent as well. Did you see it, Diana?

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

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