Mike Leigh enthusiasts will already be wondering how his study of
JMW Turner, perhaps England's most celebrated painter, fits into a canon characterised by improvised studies of ordinary, contemporary lives. The distinctive aesthetic still juts its awkward elbows through the period clothing. Mr Turner is drenched in morose humour. It features the occasional awkwardly broad performance. It has the ease of real life. But, like Topsy Turvy, Leigh's study of Gilbert and Sullivan, the picture does see the old dog stretching some underexploited muscles.
There will be a great deal of deserved superlatives flung at Mr Turner over the next few months. Dick Pope's cinematography references the images in Turner's paintings without ever slipping into cheap impersonation. Gary Yershon's angular orchestral score – like those singular pictures – manages to be both lyrical and mildly avant garde.
But the film is particularly distinguished by a truly stunning performance from Timothy Spall. The word "animalistic" is flung around a great deal when discussing actors. Nothing can, however, quite prepare you for the porcine nature of Spall's Turner. Communicating largely in grating snuffles, he stomps about the studios and galleries as if in search of truffles that no ordinary human could smell. This version of the artist is, in many ways, a frightful specimen. He denies the existence of his wife and daughters, takes casual sexual advantage of his servant and then – as spoiled men will in later years – settles down with a woman foolish enough to show him kindness. The film doesn't excuse him, but its portrayal of those partners as, respectively, shrew, pathetic fool and Dickensian saint is just a little uncomfortable.
Mr Turner deals with the final years of the holy Cockney. Already famous, comfortably off, he begins to feel the critical winds shifting against him as he moves towards something a little like abstraction.
In passing, the film offers a sly comment on the shift from Georgian sensibilities to those of the early Victorian era. In one delightfully acerbic scene, having had his paintings rejected by the new queen herself, Turner issues a particularly savage grunt at the sentimental, overcrowded, kitsch art that now decorates the walls of approved galleries. A man that still seems modern to us now has been left behind by an era that – as the picture notes – was still perfecting the camera and the steam train.
As the establishment turns up its nose, Turner slumps into confusion and ill health. The actor takes full advantage of that challenge to flesh out the working-class hero’s vulnerability. The animal becomes cowed. His snuffles become more desperate. Yet he still manages to leave the world with a defiant declaration of the sanctity of sunlight.
"There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art," a particularly pompous version of John Ruskin says in the picture. There was not much of that about on the early raves for Mr Turner at Cannes. It is sure to figure among the prizes in 10 days' time.