Mike Leigh's Turner biopic finds a home with Sony Classics

Posted by · 9:02 am · March 19th, 2013

Okay, it’s insane enough to be thinking of this year’s potential Oscar contenders, but here’s one gourmet prospect to chalk up for next year. Though still in pre-production, Mike Leigh’s long-fostered passion project, a currently untitled biopic of eminent British painter J.M.W. Turner, has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. (If my headline had you thinking he’d remade “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” I’ll presume you’re unfamiliar with Leigh’s work.)  

It will be Leigh’s second straight film to be distributed by Sony’s distinguished arthouse arm, which also guided his acclaimed character drama “Another Year” in 2010 — though that one they only picked up after its well-received Cannes premiere. It was evidently a happy match: Sony steered “Another Year” to a Best Original Screenplay nomination for the veteran writer-director (his fifth in that category, and his seventh overall), and are sure to have lofty ambitions for this prestige project.

The Turner film, which enters production in the spring, will be Leigh’s first non-fiction project since 1999’s Gilbert & Sullivan biopic “Topsy-Turvy,” also an historical study of leading figures in the British arts — and also the only Leigh films ever to take home an Oscar. (Two, in fact: for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup, while Leigh scored his second writing nod.)

Timothy Spall, a former Leigh regular who hasn’t worked with the director since 2002’s “All or Nothing,” will take the role of Turner; the supporting cast hasn’t been revealed yet, though we can surely expect Leigh’s usual assortment of fine British character actors. Georgina Lowe, a co-producer on several Leigh features who took the reins on “Another Year” following the passing of the esteemed Simon Channing Williams, is once more doing the honors.

Leigh’s longstanding cinematographer Dick Pope (a 2006 Oscar nominee for a non-Leigh assignment, “The Illusionist”) is on board; costumes for the 19th-century period piece will be designed by Jacqueline Durran, another of the director’s regular collaborators, who recently won her first Oscar for her spectacular work on “Anna Karenina.”

It is not yet known which period of Turner’s life the film will focus on, though the casting off Spall suggests the focus will be on his later life, which is rich in dramatic potential: the celebrated artist grew increasingly isolated and prone to depression following the death of his father, whom he regarded as his closest friend. Leigh explains his fascination with the man as follows:

“Turner as a character is compelling. I want to explore the man, his working life, his relationships and how he lived. But what fascinates me most is the drama that lies in the tension between this driven eccentric and the epic, timeless world he evoked in his masterpieces. I also see rich tragic-comic potential in his often turbulent relationship with the English Art Establishment, especially in his later years, when his increasingly radical work was misunderstood and derided.”

The crotchety Brit, who recently turned 70, has never wholly struck out with a film, and given his level of personal investment in this strong material — he’s been speaking of his desire to make the film for many years now — critics will be expecting pretty major Leigh from this one. A major 2014 festival premiere — Cannes or Venice, at both of which he’s previously taken the top prize — is on the cards. Whether it’s the film that can change his eternal bridesmaid status with the Academy is another question, but it’s certainly about time.

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