Like the character of JMW Turner, Mike Leigh's biopic of Britain's favorite artist is a painting of contradictions. Leigh presents an unglamorized view of Turner's later years; the awesome splendor of his landscapes repeatedly brought down to earth by the mundane reality of his own life. Rather than making for dull viewing, Turner's simplicity brings us to the realization that such an apparently ordinary, if eccentric man was responsible for colossal artistic achievements, an idea which reflects the visionary nature of the film as much as it reflects on Turner himself.
Timothy Spall plays Turner in a role likely to define his career (discounting the unhappy inevitability of being remembered largely for his performances in the Harry Potter series). Spall produces a small miracle of character acting, simultaneously tender in his deep love for his father (a touching performance by Paul Jesson) and callous in his neglection of his own daughters, vain in his desire for the success of his work and his hurt at its dismissal by a young Queen Victoria ("a dirty yellow mess") yet accepting and even happy in his close relationship with his second mistress Sophia Booth. A lesser actor might have palled at the complexity of the figure but Spall is in his element, each joyfully Victorian line delivered with knowing confidence and a subtle gruffness concealing deeper emotions. He may have spent two years learning to paint for the role, but it's Spall's sublime performance that truly makes the film, whether he's lashed to a ship's mast in an effort to understand the atmosphere of a storm or frequenting brothels for inspiration.
On the subject of painting, the brilliance of Turner's art is not overlooked despite the focus on the portrayal of his everyday life. Taking Turner's last words "the sun is god" to heart, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope create vibrant cinematic visions of the England that inspired Turner's work, each bedecked in gorgeous colour and light. To see the iconic Fighting Temeraire restored to glorious reality through masterful use of technology is a particularly spine-tingling moment, as is the instant of inspiration for his Great Western Railway. Alienation becomes a theme as Turner's world is rapidly overtaken by industry (steam engines, cameras), but there's a nagging sense that he was always a man apart, unable to connect with virtually anyone except his father. Leigh highlights this through Turner's emotionless sexual exploitation of his first mistress Hannah Danby, a woman tragic in her love for the painter despite his treatment of her. Returning to the painting, I was disappointed with the lack of focus on the development and reactions to Turner's individual masterpieces, particularly The Fighting Temeraire, which are somewhat glossed over. Although the portrayal of Turner's ordinary life serves the picture well, a little more screen time for the art itself would have improved the balance, and it's particularly noticeable in a film well over two hours long.