Festival review: The Cannes Film Festival

Timothy Spall manages to make the grumpy painter sympathetic in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner. Picture: Contributed
Timothy Spall manages to make the grumpy painter sympathetic in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner. Picture: Contributed
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THE world’s most glamorous film festival is taking no chances this year.

The Cannes Film Festival - Various Venues, Cannes

****

After an embarrassing crime wave of headline-grabbing robberies and record-breaking jewel thefts last May, the Cannes authorities have brought in 350 heavily armed riot police, 200 regular cops, more than 400 private security guards and a gleaming new arsenal of street cameras to maintain order. The mood here on the Croisette feels a little more Orwellian than usual, but at least these heavy-handed tactics appear to be working. So far.

Just three days into the sun-soaked festivities, 2014 is shaping up as a vintage year for biopics. Forget the risibly awful opening gala Grace of Monaco, now safely swept under the red carpet, because the week ahead promises a feast of classy films based on real characters, from Bertrand Bonello’s Yves Saint Laurent life story Saint Laurent to Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, a warm-hearted portrait of the 1930s Irish political activist Jim Gralton.

Mike Leigh has already played his biopic trump card with Mr Turner, (HHH) a rare excursion into period drama starring Leigh veteran Timothy Spall as 18th century painter JMW Turner. Spall somehow manages to make Turner sympathetic despite being a grunting, scowling, emotionally stunted gargoyle with a lecherous interest in his female servants that would earn him a visit from Operation Yewtree nowadays. Uncharacteristically sombre for Leigh, and running well over two hours, Mr Turner throbs with Palme d’Or potential. But what could possibly have attracted the Grumpy Old Man of British cinema to a story about a sour, misunderstood artistic genius?

If Turner comes over as mildly sleazy in Leigh’s film, he is a boy scout compared to Gerard Depardieu’s monstrous anti-hero in Abel Ferrara’s salacious biopic, Welcome To New York. (HHH). A lightly fictionalised reimagining of the sex scandal which destroyed the career of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011, Ferrara’s orgy of excess proved too lurid for the official Cannes selection committee, but it is currently proving to be a guilty pleasure at the festival’s film market.

Meanwhile, more weighty topical matters feature in two very different Cannes films about Islamic extremism. The Mali-born director Abderrahmane Sissako’s official competition contender Timbuktu (HHHH)is a passionate, poetic and surprisingly funny drama about jihadi fundamentalists wreaking havoc in his former homeland. Although there are no direct parallels, ongoing events in Nigeria inevitably resonate just out of shot.

On a related theme, Catch Me Daddy (HHHH) is a gritty chase thriller set in the rugged badlands of West Yorkshire, about a teenage British-Pakistani girl on the run from a thuggish gang of bounty hunters sent by her bullying father to bring her home. Screening in the Directors’ Fortnight strand in Cannes, this contemporary English western marks the powerful feature debut of the fraternal writer-director duo Daniel and Matthew Wolfe. The film’s untrained young star Sameena Jabeen Ahmed shines as part of a strong ensemble cast, which includes seasoned Scottish veterans Gary Lewis and Kate Dickie.

Out on the streets, Cannes 2014 may have cleaned up its act. But on screen, sex and sleaze, crime and punishment still have starring roles.