cannes film festival 2014

Urgh! Argh! Ptooie! A Grunt-by-Grunt Guide to Mr. Turner

This post originally ran on May 15, 2014, after Mr. Turner screened at Cannes. We are republishing the story with the film coming out last weekend.

As I sat in the Grand Lumiere waiting for the press screening of today’s big Cannes entry — Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh — I was struck by all the coughs rumbling through the audience. That’s to be expected from a weary, sickly festival press corps, and at an international fest like Cannes, each cough seemed to tell its own story (if you listened closely enough, you could even discern the accent). Little did I know, however, that this cacophony of coughing would actually serve as an overture for the film I was about to see.

Mr. Turner is a biopic of the famed British painted J.M.W. Turner, and while Turner’s works were heavenly, colorful, and romantic, Leigh’s film about the man is filled with earthy grunting. To say that two thirds of Timothy Spall’s grimacing, lurching lead performance is made up of nonverbal noises may actually be understating the matter. This movie has more grunts in it than most hip-hop albums.

“I think the grunting grew in this organically out of this incredible, instinctive, and emotional man who had a zillion things to say but never said it,” Spall explained later at the film’s press conference. “So he captured it all in an imploded grunt … He’s got this burning thing inside him, so rather than say it, it’s just ungh, ungh.”

But what if you don’t speak ungh? Never fear, because Vulture is here to help with our grunting glossary to Mr. Turner, which also ought to tell you a bit more about the film itself.

Grrngh. Turner’s all-purpose greeting, it has about as many uses as “Aloha.” In this film, it could be taken to mean, “Hello,” “Good-bye,” “Fetch me a drink,” “Thanks for that drink,” or “I’m sitting down now, and it hurts like a mother.”

Ptooie! You may never look at his sunny landscapes the same way after you see Mr. Turner, which finds the titular painter spitting into his canvas, then smearing the expectorate around to form a sun. In an era when painting materials could be difficult to obtain, consider this a clever work-around.

Unghh. If Mr. Turner is making this low utterance, it’s most likely because he’s groping his housemaid Hannah (played by Dorothy Atkinson) or even taking her from behind. Turner’s sexual sneak attacks could come out of nowhere, and he wasn’t much for their consequences: His two illegitimate daughters were virtual strangers to him, and he preferred to keep it that way.

Mmmeh. Few people in Turner’s orbit impress him much, and nearly everyone is on the receiving end of an astringent mmmeh at some point. Only two main characters in the film manage to escape his muted wrath: his beloved father, who is proud as can be of his successful son, and the sweet Margate boarder Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom Turner eventually falls in love with.

Yenggh. A way of explaining to a brothel owner that yes, the offered prostitute is acceptable. Once alone with the rented woman, Turner actually uses real words, positioning her on the bed as a model — “Hand on the head, as if in despair” — before sketching her for a lewd drawing.

Hennghh. Not to be confused with Kanye West’s grunt of choice, this is a noncommittal response Turner offers to his painting contemporary, the desperate eccentric Benjamin Haydon, when he is hit up for money. Which is often.

Enhhh? “Say that again?”

Enhhh. “You’ve now explained yourself and I’m not impressed.”

Enhhh! “Stop talking altogether!”

Ennh lessprehmehnso. Said by Turner, after the photographer taking his black-and-white daguerreotype explains that color photography still remains a mystery. Translated into discernible English, Turner’s threatened response is, “And let’s pray it remains so.”

Hehhehhehwheeze. A laugh attack brought on as Turner peruses the simple, simpering works on display at a public museum, this exclamation suddenly triggers a prolonged bout of ominous coughing. This, as ever, is a biopic’s way of communicating to the audience that there are 15 minutes left in the film.

A Grunt-by-Grunt Guide to Mr. Turner