British filmmaker Mike Leigh is perhaps best known for his ensemble domestic dramedies that double as explorations of contemporary social and political issues. So devoting nearly three hours to recounting the days of one man in 19th-century England is something of a shift. But Leigh's profile of painter J.M.W. Turner, depicted here in his later years, finds room for some cultural critique amid the biographical.
Turner (Timothy Spall) is not wholly sympathetic — he can be prickly, cowardly, obtuse, even exploitive — but he is often droll in his grunting, dyspeptic way, and his ill manners can be a welcome counter to the stuffy manners found within his circle of country manors and London art societies. But Turner also finds respite living semi-incognito in the modest home of a welcoming widow in Margate.
What viewers won't find is much plot, nor is this a bio-pic; when we meet Turner, he is an established artist, already plying his distinctive "modern" style. The tensions here are between art and commerce, beauty and ugliness, tradition and newness. The more one knows about British art history and Victorian mores, the more delight will be found in the work's jabs, roundabout conversations and secondary characters (including other painters and Queen Victoria).
What viewers will find is an immersive performance by Leigh regular Spall, and a beautiful production that is, as befits its subject, acutely aware of space and light. The attention to period detail seems quite extravagant, perfectly balancing, say, the richness of a garment with the inevitable grime it surely acquired.