Cannes 2014: Mike Leigh’s Turner biopic spearheads a very good festival for UK movie-makers


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

After two years of horrible weather, the sun returned to Cannes this year – one reason why the mood at the festival was more laid-back than usual. The critics didn’t have rain in their shoes and the big beach parties weren’t held in howling gales. The only storms in town were those depicted by JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s magnificent biopic Mr Turner. This was the first film in contention for the Palme d’Or (opening movie Grace of Monaco was shown out of competition) and was warmly regarded by pretty much everyone. Some grumbled about its shaggy-dog-story-like structure and length but Timothy Spall’s performance as the artist was universally admired.

Unfortunately, many of the subsequent films in competition failed to elicit the same level of enthusiasm. Raucous Argentine comedy Wild Tales, from director Damian Szifron (and produced by Pedro Almodovar), entertained the critics, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep impressed them, but other Palme d’Or contenders left them underwhelmed.

Foxcatcher from Capote director Bennett Miller was heavily hyped as a potential awards contender in advance of its competition screening but turned out to be a strangely muted affair. Probably the first sports movie based around Greco-Roman wrestling, it was beautifully crafted and well acted but didn’t grapple with the emotions in the way that might have been expected of a story with a tragic twist. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play brothers and Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schulz, taken in hand by eccentric, blue-blood multi-millionaire John du Pont (played by comedian Steve Carrell.) Carrell, in a rare non-comedic role, is an aloof presence, giving us little sense of what really drove du Pont to co-opt the US Olympics male wrestling team. .

Tommy Lee Jones’s Western The Homesman was respectfully received but most critics felt it was less impressive than his earlier foray into the genre, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which he brought to the festival in 2005.

After some fallow years, it was a very good Cannes for the Brits. Not only was Leigh’s Turner film and Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall (one of the director’s cheerier films) in competition, there were various other British films scattered throughout other sections of the festival.

John Boorman’s autobiographical Queen and Country, a belated follow-up to his earlier Hope and Glory, was an old fashioned but deeply felt and very evocative affair in which the 81-year-old director revisited the early 1950s, when he was doing his National Service. Boorman shot much of the film in Romania for budgetary reasons but still did an exemplary job in evoking pre-Coronation Britain, when rationing was still in force, class divisions were pronounced and there was deep gloom over the prospect of nuclear war. Callum Turner plays 18-year-old Bill Rohan, the character based on Boorman who falls in love for the first time while enduring a brutal and often absurd time as a British army conscript.

Catch Me Daddy, a first feature by music video and commercials director Daniel Wolf, was a violent, very fast-moving chase movie about a couple on the run that made strong use of its Yorkshire locations. It was refreshing to encounter a Northern-set British thriller that didn’t dwell on social-realist cliches. The problem was the macho posturing, the many improbabilities in the screenplay and the sheer nastiness of the characters.

Another British film, Snow in Paradise (Andrew Hulme’s directorial debut) was inspired by the experiences of co-writer Martin Askew. It is about Dave (newcomer Fred Schmidt), a small-time criminal from London’s East End who turns to Islam after the violent death of his best friend.

There was a whiff of sad-captain-style nostalgia when Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone and colleagues rolled into town in Soviet-era tanks at the weekend to promote the forthcoming The Expendables 3. The stunt cost a reported $2m. In post-austerity-era Cannes, such marketing ploys are increasingly rare. They were everyday occurrences in the 1980s and 1990s, when producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films were turning out action movies in droves and littering Cannes with garish advertising. They are the subject of a new documentary, The Go-Go Boys. Both men came to Cannes to support the film. Golan is 84 and in a wheelchair but still trying to entice Al Pacino to appear in Le Grand Festival, a wartime comedy he has been trying to make for many years. Globus is younger and still full of mischief. When I spoke to him, he couldn’t hide his pride in the fact that, in his pomp, when he was raising cash to buy MGM, he once signed a cheque for $1.2bn. “The cheque cleared!”

Cannon- or Expendables-like flashiness wasn’t evident in the Cannes competition, which remains a celebration of the art of cinema. Where will Jane Campion’s jury award its prizes? Mr Turner is a prime candidate, either for the Palme d’Or itself or for a Best Actor award for Timothy Spall. Julianne Moore should be in contention for her turn as an ageing actress in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Ceylan’s Winter Sleep may feature. Previous winners like the Dardenne brothers (with Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard) and The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius (with The Search) must have a chance. Campion (still the only female director to have won the Palme d’Or) will see a kindred spirit in young Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, whose coming-of-age film The Wonders was well liked. But wherever the awards go, 2014 is likely to be remembered as solid rather than spectacular.