Reviews: MR. TURNER and TIMBUKTU Open the Competition at Cannes

     May 15, 2014

timbuktu review mr turner review slice

The official competition kicked off this morning with the screening of Abderrahmane Sissako‘s Timbuktu and Mike Leigh‘s sublime (and grumpy) Mr. Turner, two films which paint beautiful tableaux, captivating characters and poignant moments.

Hit the jump for my reviews of Timbuktu and Mr. Turner.


Inspired by the true story of a couple stoned to death in Mali, Timbuktu denounces the invasion of the West African country by jihadists who trample upon its freedom and traditions.  The film reflects the former French colony’s current political turmoil and, following the terror attacks last September, the film crew even had to relocate to Mauritania.  Full of symbolism, the film centers around two animals: a gazelle who runs for her life and a cow called GPS, the perfect metaphor for a country that has lost its direction.

Timbuktu review Abderrahmane Sissako 2Timbuktu is a shadow of its former self as a group of Arabs walk around town imposing Sharia law.  Men have to wear cropped pants from now on, women must don socks and gloves at all times.  Anybody who refuses to comply risks punishment, like the fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves. Or worse. Sissako shows the hypocrisy of religious zealots.  Music and football are forbidden, yet the leader of the jihadists, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), has heated discussions about the sport and Zinedine Zidane with the local teens.  And these kids, despite the lack of a ball, play a pretend match, as if to say no one can forbid imagination. It is a scene full of poetry but also comes off as resignation, a tragic fate that they accept.

The central character, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), is a peaceful, caring thirtysomething herdsman who prefers to live under a tent in the dunes rather than the town. His only concern is the well-being of his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter. In fact, he lives for his little girl.  Far from town, they are free.  He struts on his guitar while his wife sings along.  After a tragic confrontation with the fisherman who kills GPS culminates in his arrest, he pleads for his life as the self-appointed new government officials, who don’t even speak Touareg, must rule on his fate.

Timbuktu review Abderrahmane SissakoTimbuktu is full of unique characters, each with a story and a shared longing for the freedoms they once enjoyed. One character that particularly stands out is the crazy Zabou who commits every so-called sin forbidden by the Sharia law.  Her folly thus allows her to forgo the veil, smoke, sing, dance and, above all, speak her mind without being punished. And some of these extremists enjoy her company and partake in “worldly” activities to perhaps forget their own fate.  And perhaps that is also why Kidane prefers the tranquility of the dunes: the sprawling desert represents freedom.  We cannot help but be drawn by these men and women, boys and girls, victims of an extremist ideology.

In one scene, a young man is having difficulty in describing his newfound religious zeal for a video after he ditched rap music. At first we think it’s a martyrdom video, but the maladroit direction by Abdelkrim offers some comic relief as he tries to coach his reluctant student who admits he is not convinced about the message he’s been asked to recite on front of the camera.

Born in Mauritania, Sissako spent part of his childhood in Mali and remains hopeful for the future of its children. With Timbuktu, he offers a graceful imagery of the golden dunes under the incandescent sun and praying for a wind of change.

The film opens in France on May 16.  No U.S. release date has been set yet.

Mr. Turner

mr turner review timothy spallOne of the most awaited films in this year’s selection was Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.  And it did not disappoint.  The biographical drama of Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner, considered the greatest British painter of all time and the father of Impressionism, depicts an artist who was admired and loathed by many, a man of many contradictions who led a bohemian lifestyle and enjoyed every minute of it, or almost.  And Timothy Spall plays him to perfection.

The eccentric painter has an advantage over many of his contemporaries – he lives handsomely from his art.  Wealth buys him a certain type of freedom, while success allows him to speak his mind.  And he does not hold back.  He roams around the gallery at the Royal Academy exchanging banter with less artsy, more fartsy painters, giving his two pence and occasionally stepping in and tweaking a painting.   A visionary, he uses unconventional methods such as mixing in his own spit, and he sees inspiration everywhere, from the windowsill of his hotel room in Margate to the whorehouse where he engages a prostitute to pose in a certain way while he sketches her, before he inexplicably bursts into tears.  That is when we see him as a big child, his tears suggesting that beneath the rough exterior is a sensitive man, a facet he shows when he refuses a large sum of money to a private buyer who wishes to buy his entire collection, preferring to make his art available to the public for free.

mr-turner review timothy spallTurner also behaves like a Victorian era rock star. He often grabs his housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), and takes sexual advantage of her.  (She does not seem to mind and we wonder whether she is in love with him.)  Until he meets Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) and they eventually become live-in lovers.  Yet his is an absentee father to his illegitimate daughters, much to the disgrace of their mother, Sarah Dunby (Ruth Sheen).  Spall’s dialogue is interspersed with grunts, some uttered at comical moments.

His face is in a permanent scrunch, as if he’s constantly thinking too hard, and resembles the pig’s head his widowed father (Paul Jesson) buys for dinner at the local marketplace.  He is a tad eccentric, a grumpy man who, beneath a rough exterior, is a caring son.  Apart from that, Turner’s life was largely uneventful.  Yet Mike Leigh manages to depict him in an engaging manner, drawing the spectator in.  The movie’s pace remains consistent from the start, not a second is wasted.  The muted colors, the neutral hues, and the sky weighing down before a rainstorm resemble live paintings with their apocalyptic promises.  One memorable scene is when the sea is agitated and the waves create a ripple effect.  His unique use of light and his understanding of nature and its force.

Entrancing, Mr. Turner will interest more than the average art fan.  Mr. Turner opens this fall.

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