By Mike Davidson
CANNES France (Reuters) - British director Mike Leigh says he was "terrified" at the prospect of capturing the scope and subtlety of a Turner painting in a film.
But his cinematic portrait of the life of the artist known for his sweeping seascapes is an early favorite to win the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Palme D'Or.
Screen International's survey of critics published on Monday tipped "Mr Turner" for the prize, just ahead of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep."
"It's a tough subject for a film," Leigh said in an interview with Reuters TV.
"I mean, to make a film about what to some people is an obscure 19th century painter, to make such a film without compromise. I mean we haven't had to Hollywood-ize it in any way and it is an independent picture."
Leigh is known for a style of working that is grounded in theater, with no script at the start of the process, lengthy rehearsals and improvised dialogue.
"Mr Turner" has earned great reviews from critics, who have praised its Dickensian feel, its ability to wordlessly express domestic turmoil, and its underlying themes of class consciousness and the nature of art.
Reviewers have also lauded a masterful performance from Timothy Spall as the cantankerous and grunting J.M.W. Turner.
Leigh typically casts character actors little recognized outside Britain and he said opting for more Hollywood actors in his cast "would be a complete disaster".
"People have said, 'Well, if you have a Hollywood star, an A-list star, we'll give you as much money as you like,'" he said. "But, I want my Timothy Spall to play Turner, and not a bunch of other people who would be profoundly unqualified."
A win would be the second Palme d'Or for Leigh, who won for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996. Eighteen films are competing for prize, which will be given on Sunday, including Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" and "The Search" from French director Michel Hazanavicius.
(This story has been corrected to fix garble in fifth paragraph, and the name of Leigh's film in the last paragraph to "Secrets and Lies")
(Writing by Alexandria Sage, Editing by Angus MacSwan)