Mike Leigh Developing J.M.W. Turner Biopic at Sony Picture Classics

Mike LeighAfter months of checking up on Mike Leigh’s imdb page to see when he’ll bring something new to the big screen, and what that will be, we’ve finally been given all those answers in one substantial announcement. After working on awkward siblings Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year, each heading in distinctly opposite directions with their self-esteem levels, Leigh is heading into more substantially dramatic territory with a biopic about the life of famed British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. With a setting likely somewhere in the 19th century, Leigh appears to be returning to the period approach he took with Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake, and the cast and crew he’s assembled thus far are promising in that respect.

The only cast announced so far is Timothy Spall in as J.M.W. Turner, implying a focus on his later life and a more substantial role than Spall’s had since he last worked with Mike Leigh on All or Nothing just over a decade ago. Unorthodox a choice as it may sound, we’ll certainly not be getting any typical British biographical portrayal from Leigh, certainly not in the same vein as The King’s Speech. Leigh has never been one to blindly respect his subjects, so expect to be getting a warts-and-all depiction of Turner.

Timothy SpallThe talent below the line is no less enticing, with Leigh reuniting with regular cinematography Dick Pope, previously an Oscar nominee for his work on Neil Burger’s The Illusionist. He is also re-teaming with his costume design collaborator since All or Nothing, Jaqueline Durran, who is fresh from winning her first Academy Award for her work on Anna Karenina. While neither of these is a particular surprise from the director, the historically based material may be enough within the Academy’s wheelhouse to land the director his most promising Oscar bid since 1996’s Secrets & Lies. Even if his latest receives as frosty a reception as his recent work, getting Original Screenplay mentions for Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year regardless, it’ll almost certainly retain the empathic charm he’s most loved for when it arrives (possibly at Cannes) in 2014.

Sony Picture Classics has wisely snatched up this property before it has any chance to go on the market, not that they’d have any difficulty reuniting with Mike Leigh after as polite a collaboration as Another Year. Discussing his inspiration for focusing on the figure of J.M.W. Turner, Mike Leigh gave us one short idea of where his focus will be:

“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.”

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