Like a Gallic version of Jennifer Lawrence, tripping up a flight of stairs but laughing it off in style, the 67th Festival de Cannes has made a fine recovery following from the opening-night pratfall taken by the Grace Kelly biopic "Grace of Monaco."
That film screened out of competition, like many Cannes openers past. But with the arrival Wednesday and Thursday of the first two competition titles in the main slate, the festival's on track. Just like the 70-and-sunny weather. (Last year it rained.) Not that journalists attending Cannes get outside much. As longtime Los Angeles Times film writer Charles Champlin once put it, "Our set never suns." But it's nice to know it's there.
The sun and its mysterious, ever-changing qualities of light play a significant thematic role in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," an impeccable portrait of 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner. The assurance and rightness of its very first shot bode well for the 21/2 hours to follow. It is 1826, somewhere in Holland. We're in the countryside, with a windmill in the distance behind two women, passers-by, walking toward the camera. They move on, and then Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope (shooting digitally, and beautifully) spy an incongruous figure in the distance, with a sketch pad, capturing something we're not specifically shown. Timothy Spall plays Turner, and this Leigh regular has never had a better role.
Spall had a supporting part in "Topsy-Turvy," Leigh's inspired period picture about how Gilbert and Sullivan wrote "The Mikado." Many of that film's strengths can be found in "Mr. Turner," which shows how a director invested equally in character and design can bring a piece of the past to vibrant and detailed life.
Turner's complex domestic life provides the focus of "Mr. Turner," though we see various sides of the man who once lashed himself to a ship's mast so he could acquire a new perspective on a storm at sea. (Oddly this is one of the few missteps in Leigh's film; something's missing in its depiction, however fleeting, of this event.) The relationships in the film are full; the scenes between Turner and his beloved and loving father, played by Paul Jesson, carry an unexpected warmth, given the guttural grunts and dodgy scowls by which we first come to know Spall's Turner. At one point in the film he sings a song of lost love by Henry Purcell, and the voice he gives it, wonderfully, suggests a Victorian version of Tom Waits.
Lee's celebrated improvisation-based working methods pay off in "Mr. Turner" with a costume drama of unusual, lived-in texture. The acting's superb throughout, with crucial contributions coming from Dorothy Atkinson (as the housemaid who's also Turner's sometime, much-neglected lover) and by Marion Bailey as the twice-widowed landlady who takes a flat in Chelsea with the iconoclastic Turner. Few depictions of a critic have been as wittily withering as Joshua McGuire's characterization of John Ruskin here.
Not everything works; the rhythm and direction of the final half-hour seem a bit stiff, at least on a first viewing. But a first look also suggests this is one of Leigh's strongest achievements. It's pure speculation at this early stage, but expect an award or two for "Mr. Turner" when the festival concludes next Saturday.
The same may happen with "Timbuktu," director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako's impressive fifth feature and his first competition title at Cannes. Of all the films thus far dramatizing the human cost of Jihadist extremism, this is one of the most affecting. Sissako keeps an eye on several different storylines in "Timbuktu," chief among them the tale of a cattle-herder, played with striking delicacy by newcomer Ibrahim Ahmed.
He lives outside his Mali village with his wife (Toulou Kiki) and daughter. Things have grown sinister in the region; in the name of Allah, the jihadists in control have begun enforcing at gunpoint bans on football, smoking and music. The acts of violence in "Timbuktu" are small in number but huge in impact, particularly in the scene where two transgressors, buried up to their necks, are stoned to death. Sissako devotes perhaps four seconds of screen time to this horror; it's perfectly judged and unforgettable.
The film sees all sides without being stupidly even-handed about the murderous injustices depicted. A boy tending cattle lets one of his steers wander too close to the fishing nets of a fellow villager. This sets into motion a cycle of retribution that feels painfully realistic. With a disarming light touch, the film takes us to very dark corners of human and political behavior. There are problems with it: a bad, overeager musical score, for one thing. But the problems are sidelined, in the end, by the quiet force of its images.
After Olivier Dahan's "Grace of Monaco" it was bracing to get some real filmmaking from Sissako and Leigh. "Grace of Monaco" did, however, cough up the most stupidly anachronistic line of dialogue we're likely to hear throughout the festival. Sick of hearing powerful men arguing about France's war with Algeria, the Princess of Monaco as played by Nicole Kidman turns her nose up and, in her best/worst Valley Girl intonation, settles the debate with a simple: "Colonialism is so last century!" Yes, and that sentence construction is SO not 1962!
As Prince Rainier III never said: LOL.