After all the pompous rot you’ve heard about the artist's life, inspiration, specialness, temperament, etc., leave it to Mike Leigh to create a transcendent work of art that argues convincingly that artists are only just barely mammals. The great Timothy Spall invests his performance as Britain’s most famous painter with a positively simian physicality; he grunts, growls, moans, and aches. He speaks in elaborately arch locutions (“Sir, I beseech you: Brook your ire!” and “I’m not unsympathetic to your impecunity”) like a cockney cartoon, on the order of Roger Daltrey in a Ken Russell film. His sexual impulses are violent and crude, as is nearly everything about his physical presence. But when he turns to the canvas, or hears music, he experiences genuine sublimity on a scale that seems to pull British society into the modern age. The film’s behavioral study appears more anthropological than dramatic—Turner’s more inconsistent characteristics (especially his weird indifference toward his daughters) are never explained or justified to serve a thesis about what makes a great artist great; they simply get observed, lumped in with all the other contradictions.
The resulting portrait, with all its mystery and theater, is utterly fascinating and emotionally expansive, as only Mike Leigh films are. The people in Turner’s orbit—especially the posh twits—are given far less Leigh-way, as is often the case. Critics and patrons struggle to say banal things in an attempt to matter to Turner the way his work matters to them, and as time marches on, their entitlement only grows. Far more than being a conventional biopic, Mr. Turner is concerned with the progress, for good and ill, of civilization. When the story begins, the characters seem to be one step beyond living in caves. They are captives of sunlight and baffled by the fundamental sorrow at the core of being alive. How fitting, then, that they should revere a master of light and shadow like this coarse painter; as one admirer tells him: “The universe is chaos. You make us see it!”
With the coming of modernity, Turner and his work become relics, mocked by comedians, rejected by Queen Victoria, and supplanted by new technology like the daguerreotype. But his questing nature is irreducible; he fights through the indignity and physical collapse, hurting some people and loving others even as time itself seems to gather momentum and leave him behind. In a sense, Leigh has created a snapshot of a particular stage in human evolution, when art, having passed from the cave wall (where it recorded our existence) to the gallery wall (where it exalted it), then took a turn toward novelty, from which it may not ever have fully recovered.