Mike Leigh lights up Cannes with epic work of art on painter JMW Turner


Timothy Spall gave a masterclass in the meaning of the grunt as his star turn playing the painter JMW Turner in the new biopic from Mike Leigh was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday.

Spall, 57, explained why the sometimes brutish but brilliant working-class artist he depicts in Mr Turner resorts to grunting to convey what he was unable to say in words.

“The grunt grew organically out of this incredible, instinctive, emotional autodidact intellectual man who had a zillion things to say but never said them,” he said.

“He had this burning thing inside him but rather than say it, he…” The explanation ended with the grunt which is a feature of Leigh’s two and a half hour epic. Spall, who had worked with Leigh four times before, was cast more than two years ago and went to painting lessons two or three times a week to prepare.

“I knew a little bit about Turner. The great thing that made us a perfect match was he was a funny-looking fat little man and so am I. As far as his soul was concerned, that took a lot of research on his art and what his inspirations were,” the actor said. What made the film so wonderful, he added, was that it became obvious that “genius is not always in the most romantic packages – most geniuses are strange”.

“The man was simian, ape-like. He was working-class but had this amazing soul… There was a competition between this slightly brutish man with love in his heart but not quite sure where to put it and this amazing visual genius.”

The absent but crucial character in Turner’s story was his mother who was regarded as “a lunatic”. She “left a scar through Turner’s heart” which influenced his rather dysfunctional relationships with women.

But Spall said: “The nuclear fission inside him, this pain, created this wonderful art.”

The actor revealed his own mother lived in a flat in the same spot in Margate where Turner lived. Yet the landscape of the Kent town had changed so much, not least with the new Turner Contemporary Gallery now dominating the sea view, that the film was shot in Cornwall.

Mike Leigh, 71, who had wanted to make the film for 15 years, denied the film was autobiographical.

“I am, we are artists, therefore we do entirely understand the territory that we’re making a film about.” But it did not make it “a narcissistic investigation”.