05/17/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mike Leigh's 'Mr. Turner' Premieres at Cannes

Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" was roundly appreciated by critics here at Cannes, for its down-to-earth rendering of the famous British landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner, a man who grunts, screws, treats his daughters with disinterested cruelty and expects, it seems, the two adoring women in his life to serve him. "He is portrayed as a thug," chuckled one journalist. "We see that he detaches himself from all emotions, relationships, to dedicate himself to his art," said another.

Indeed, we see Mr. Turner obsess with color, grab his sketch book at every inspiration (including a drowned woman, whose cadaver lies under his window), and even tie himself to a mast to feel the sublime power of the wind.

What I most appreciated was the recreation of 19th century England: the atelier of the painter, the academy of artists, the quiet aerial views of seascapes, the charming hotel room with flower-patterned wallpaper and matching bedspread, the cobblestone streets, with horse-and-buggies passing by.

I also was moved by the scene where Mr. Turner, charismatically played by Timothy Spall, bawls on the ground as a young prostitute prostrates herself before him, perhaps---one never knows quite what this character is thinking-- taken with compassion for the misery of her situation. Then he draws her.

However this was one of the few moments when I was moved. I never entered into this character, or intuited the source or caliber of his artistic genius. Or discovered much about his particular contribution to Romantic painting, which I learned--only later in correspondence with a Turner scholar--lay in his ground-breaking use of color and gesture. Throughout the film, I did enjoy the instants of Turner's clever talent (a spot of red paint becomes a ship buoy), but questioned whether the genius of art lies in more than a knack for paint and a brooding look. I also did not quite know what to make of the ever-present subtext of death and sickness that runs through the film, leading predictably to a mortal ending.

Still I enjoyed the 2 and ½ hours. I liked the Turneresque look of the film: the grey-orange muted landscapes, the softness of the light.

"I wanted to recreate Turner's palette in the film," cinematographer Dick Pope excitedly told us at the press conference. "Mike Leigh and I discussed this film for years, spent much time at the Tate looking at Turner's paintings, until the colors got into the bloodstream. It was not a matter of consciously saying that this shot will be this painting or that."

As for what made Mr. Turner tick: actor Timothy Spall responded passionately, pointing to the artist's traumatic relationship with his "lunatic mother", a relationship alluded to, albeit not depicted, in the film: "It was this nuclear fissure, this pain, which created this amazing art. My character was someone who could only express himself emotionally in his art." Or in his grunts, "a form of repressed emotion."

actor Timothy Spall

"The film shows the ying and yang of artistic versus emotional expression," he added with gusto.

Director Mike Leigh corroborated this view: "I wanted to show this tension between this mortal and flawed individual and the spirituality of his work."

When I queried how the director defined the term "spiritual"--perplexed as I did not see anything particularly "spiritual" in the film--Leigh smiled and said it was not something he liked to define, but stated that Turner's spirituality lay in his approach "to living and dying".

"Turner steps on the edge of a cliff, paints what he sees, experiences something beyond what he sees."

I would love to know what that "something" is.

My next trip to London will include a visit to the Tate.