Had he been born in a different time and place, painter J.M.W. Turner might have been a member of the Hudson River School, a group of artists who worked in the second half of the 19th century, after Turner's 1851 death.
Like those painters, Turner was a master of capturing light in his landscapes, imbuing them with an almost incandescent quality that foresaw the rise of impressionism. It's something the director Mike Leigh and cinematographer capture beautifully in Mr. Turner, their sometimes thrilling, sometimes overly studied portrait of the painter.
As played by Timothy Spall in what could be a career performance, Turner is first seen in middle age. He spends his time running off to the British coast and the continent in pursuit of the best light to paint. His career and work are managed by his sprightly, aging father (Paul Jesson), an entertaining roisterer who understands his son's peculiar genius and how to enable it while working as his studio assistant.
Turner stalks the streets of Victorian London, determination in his step even as he casts baleful glances at his fellow man. As played by Spall with a blend of physicality and a style of vocalization that often doesn't extend to actual words, Turner seems to be in a perpetual fever of creativity. As he makes clear with his grunts of disapproval, he doesn't have time for a lot of distractions.
Leigh's film is not a biography of Turner but, rather, a slice of his life, a portrait of the artist at the height of his artistic power, selling enough of his work to wealthy collectors and museums to live the life he wants. What he wants is to chase the light, bathe in it, absorb it, then pour it forth in sweeping landscapes shaped by his fascinating choice of color and the subtlety of his effects.
This review continues on my website.