Mike Leigh at NYFF: It’s ‘about time’ someone made a movie about ‘Mr. Turner’

“There hasn’t been a motion picture about [famed British painter J.M.W. Turner]. I thought it was about time we made one,” said director Mike Leigh, at the New York Film Festival promoting his biopic “Mr. Turner,” which debuted at the fest on October 3 and opens in limited release on December 19.

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The director continued, “The more I looked into it, the  more I realized that Turner as a character and  personality, this conflicted, eccentric, passionate guy, ticked all the boxes for a potential character in a Mike Leigh film.”

The film has had a successful run on the festival circuit, starting at Cannes, where Timothy Spall won Best Actor, and continuing through Telluride and Toronto. Like most Leigh films, it has earned rave reviews along the way, scoring 96 on MetaCritic after 10 reviews and rating 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Spall, who ranks fifth in our Oscar racetrack odds (click here for his complete stats), prepared extensively for the role after Leigh offered it to him in 2010. “[Leigh] said, ‘Also, would you mind starting to learn how to paint?'” said Spall. “So I spent two and a half years learning how to paint. I got quite heavily into the whole process of that … up to the point where I was able to actually do a full-sized copy of a Turner painting … I did do a hell of a lot of preparation for it.”

Timothy Spall (‘Mr. Turner’) tumbles in our Oscar predictions, but can he rally?

But despite critical acclaim and a strong track record at the Oscars for Mike Leigh – he’s a seven-time nominee for writing and directing – the film is a 100/1 underdog in the top races, Best Picture and Best Director, and only a 50/1 contender for Best Original Screenplay, where Leigh earned five of his nominations. Are we underestimating the film? (Click here to see the current state of the Best Picture contest.)

“Mr. Turner” could fare well below the line. It ranks third in our current predictions for Best Costume Design, a category that often favors period films, and it could also be a factor for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography. Of capturing the era, Leigh explained, “We’ve gone as far as we can to be what we think and feel is accurate.” He and director of photography Dick Pope used Turner’s own paintings to inform the film’s visual style.

Will “Mr. Turner” make an impact at the Oscars? Predict whether Spall will win Best Actor below.

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