Portrait of the artist

Timothy Spall on playing Turner.

by Richard Mowe

Timothy Spall on Turner: "He was a funny looking man, and so was I."
Timothy Spall on Turner: "He was a funny looking man, and so was I."

Serendipity may well have played a part in Timothy Spall’s landing of the role of the “painter of light” JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s new film competing in the official Cannes Film Festival selection.

He received the call from the director while he was walking around Soho. “That was three years ago and when I looked up I was standing under Turner’s House in Maiden Lane,” he explained.

“Mike told he was planning to do the film about three years hence, and he asked me to start painting. I look lessons to make sure that on a practical level I was well prepared.”

Asked to explain the distinctive grunts that punctuate Turner’s speech the actor said: “The grunts grew organically out of this instinctive and emotional auto-didactic intellectual man who had a zillion things to say so he encapsulated it in a burning grunt. He was suppressing something.”

Spall, who is one of Leigh’s coterie of regulars, already knew a bit about Turner because as a boy he had lived in Margate where Turner lived and painted for parts of his life. “He was a funny looking man, and so was I. What makes the film so wonderful is that it is about genius, which comes in not particularly obvious packaging. Geniuses are often odd-looking sociopaths. I liked the contradiction between this brutish man with love in his heart, and this amazing visual genius,” he said.

Mike Leigh: "It is important to dish up a varied diet."
Mike Leigh: "It is important to dish up a varied diet."

Leigh confirmed that such dichotomy was what appealed to him. “This scope for something fascinating in this tension between a very mortal and flawed individual and the inspirational and spiritual way he had of expressing the world around him.”

He said that as artists the crew understood the territory of the film he was making. “There are any number of artists who paint what they see in a photographic way. When Turner paints the sea and the sky he makes us aware of what goes on beyond the surface. It is about the whole thing of living and dying, and what life is all about.”

Leigh may be best known for his small-scale social-realist dramas – from his first film, Bleak Moments (1971) to 2010’s Another Year. In1999 he made Topsy-Turvy, a biopic of the comic opera-writers WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan set during the making of The Mikado in the early 1880s.

So how does Mr Turner fit in to his canon? “Look at my films and on one level you can see a consistency through them all both in style and preoccupations. Each time I like to make different sorts of films in the genre. It is important to dish up a varied diet if you run a restaurant and that is what it is about.”

Dick Pope, the cinematographer, shot the film using the same colour palette as Turner which is on display in Tate Britain gallery in London. Pope explained: “The light in that part of Kent is fantastic. Turner was sent there to school as a small boy. There at the end of the estuary on the isle of Thanet the light is amongst the most beautiful in Europe. “

Unlike his contemporary Ken Loach, who also figures in the Competition, Leigh says he has no intention of retiring any time soon. He jokes: “Remember that Ken is six years older then me. We’re already talking about my next one. We will make a film in a couple of years.”

Mr Turner will be released later this year.

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