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Mike Leigh brings Turner's stormy seas to sunny Cannes

By Michael Roddy

CANNES (Reuters) - With colors from the artist's own palette and a central performance that explores the 'art of the grunt', British director Mike Leigh brought the turbulent life of English artist J.M.W. Turner to the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday.

Leigh, a Cannes regular who has had five films in competition for the top Palme d'Or prize and won it in 1996 for "Secrets and Lies", is going head to head with another veteran British director, Ken Loach.

His "Mr Turner" and Loach's "Jimmy's Hall", about an Irish communist, are among 18 films vying for the top honor at the world's most prestigious festival, while 100 or more are being shown here in other forums.

Leigh's film brought Turner's huge canvases of ships tossed in stormy seas to a Cannes that this year is basking in steady sunshine.

"Turner is...one of the great painters of all times anywhere really, a great radical revolutionary painter," Leigh told reporters, explaining why he chose to focus on the 19th-century pre-Impressionist.

"I felt there was scope for what could be a fascinating film because of what may seem the tension between this very mortal, in some ways flawed and very inspired individual and this epic work, this spiritual way that he had of distilling, capturing and expressing the world."

Another competition entry, "Timbuktu" by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, went to another climatic extreme entirely, depicting the occupation of the Malian desert city by Islamist militants who impose their strict version of Islamic law on an uncomprehending local population.

It shows shocking cruelty inflicted on residents, with people being whipped or stoned to death after the Islamists take over, in a film inspired by real events of 2012.

"The real courage is to be found with those who live this on a daily basis, not just one day or two, but for a long time," Sissako told a news conference.

"And they wage a silent combat, which is a real combat waged by humankind. That's where the optimism lies in the film."

BRINGING PAINTING TO LIFE

The festival attracts some 127,000 people to the Mediterranean seaside town. Many queue for hours for tickets, or hold up small printed signs asking if anyone has a spare.

Some 4,000 journalists are here to cover the comings and goings of stars, directors and producers.

Leigh, whose films are known for improvised dialogue made up on the set, said his "Mr Turner" was no different. But he noted that a huge amount of research had gone into finding out about Turner, his painting techniques and his unconventional life in early 19th-century England.

"You can read all the books in the world and research for years, but that doesn't make things happen in front of the camera," Leigh said. "You still have to create a characterization, you have to breathe flesh and blood into it."

British actor Timothy Spall turns in a hugely engaging portrayal of a very difficult person. His Turner is a somewhat simian, heavyset working-class man in later life who has a deep attachment to his father, relates awkwardly to women and, despite his deep intellect, often communicates by grunting.

Spall said he had studied painting for two years in order to convincingly portray a painter who invented his own techniques, including spitting on his canvases to help smudge the paint.

And the guttural noises?

"I think the grunting grew in this organically, out of this incredible instinctive and emotional autodidactic intellectual man who had a billion, a zillion things to say but never said it, so he encapsulated it in imploded grunts," Spall said.

"That's how he expresses himself a lot of the time because he's got this burning thing inside him," Spall said, proceeding to demonstrate the sound he makes in the movie and adding: "That's the art of the grunt."

Cinematographer Dick Pope said he had tried to recapture Turner's own color palette by studying the painter's works in the Tate Britain museum and researching the colors he used.

"We tried to tell the story with the pictures with the colors that he used at that time," Pope said.

(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage; Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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