You may be unable to pick J. M. W. Turner out of a lineup, but you've probably seen his paintings before. He preferred marine landscapes, stormy seas cast over with grey, ominous clouds. His brush strokes were large and bold, yet precise without seeming to be so. Like Terrence Malick, Turner enjoyed visualizing nature during the magic hour, when the sun was at the perfect height to create gorgeous oranges and yellows on the horizon. His work creates versions of the British Isles that idealize and enhance their natural beauty; you'd be hard-pressed to find such depictions of that environment in any medium today, which has ever since stuck with Charles Dickens's steel-grey urban sprawl or the muddy moors you find in Great Expectations.
It's also difficult to imagine a more unlikely choice of an actor to play the painter, yet writer-director Mike Leigh went with his longtime collaborator, Timothy Spall, whom you may know from the Harry Potter films, and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Spall is a large, heavy man, capable of an almost unintelligible working-class accent and endless amounts of wordless grunting and snuffling. His resemblance to an overgrown rat made him an ideal choice for Peter Pettigrew. Yet he is also a terrific, one-of-a-kind actor, because despite all of his physical unapproachability, he radiates a severe intelligence through his eyes, and we believe that he can charm the pants off of everyone in the room simply by walking around and shouting their names. He is the sort of actor that could only stand a chance at playing gruff, man-beasts in the Hollywood system, but independent British film has allowed him to soar in roles as diverse as Winston Churchill in The King's Speech and the gentle, loving partner to Oliver Platt in Ginger & Rosa. He won Best Actor at Cannes in 2014 for Mr. Turner, and watching him, it's easy to see why.
In typical Leigh fashion, the film covers a lot of ground in Turner's life, without seeming to have any semblance of a narrative through-line; instead, we get snippets and slices of the last twenty five or so years of Turner's life. He goes on long, strenuous walks through the countryside of Britain in order to gain inspiration for his work. He holes himself up in his home studio, where his doting father, William (Paul Jesson), mixes his paints and helps keep house with their psoriatic maid, Hannah (a brilliant, nearly silent Dorothy Atkinson). As Turner gets older, he and his work become more divisive: he straps himself to the mast of a ship in the middle of a horrible storm in order best to see how such things look for a project he's working on. The experience likely hastens his death, but it laid the groundwork for the excellently abstract paintings that time has judged to be masterpieces, yet at which a quickly glimpsed Queen Victoria turns up her nose. Most significantly, Turner shacks up with a middle-aged widow named Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), who would become his companion until his death.
At 150 minutes, Mr. Turner is not for those who are not committed to Leigh's loose approach to storytelling. This fits squarely into the genre of the biopic, yet has none of the tiresome, formulaic trappings that you might see in something like the blandly tasteful Theory of Everything. And although Leigh may not have received the top honors from the Academy that Theory (and its counterpart, The Imitation Game) has, it has nevertheless been recognized for its score, production design, costumes, and cinematography, which is perhaps this film's crowning achievement. Deliberately cutting between close-ups of Turner's work and the many luminous landscapes that inspire him, the film blurs the line between the painter's output and the natural world itself. Even in interior scenes, director of photography Dick Pope is able to craft lovely images out of a single source of light and plenty of shadow. Mr. Turner may have a more modest subject than its competitors at the Oscars, but I'll be damned if its camerawork isn't the best I've seen all year.
Mr. Turner is a lovely, sometimes breathtakingly so, look at the life of a truculent artist who unrepentantly carved out a place for himself in the world (to the point that he disowned his two illegitimate daughters). You can admire Turner for the gusto with which he seized that which he wanted in life, or you can scold him for leaving so many people in the dust behind him. But you can't do anything but praise Leigh for making one of the best films of the year.