Nor does the film pretend that the life of a great artist is the same as the life of everyone one else. Turner possessed a fleet, agile mind that could read sunlight like words. He was rapt by his fast-changing times, and the film shows him fascinated with the camera, a new technology he thought would replace his role in the universe. The beauty of the film, what makes it a classic, is the way Turner’s sensuality is both bottled and released by Spall’s performance.
And Timothy Spall’s performance should win him best actor, at least in a just world. In vintage Mike Leigh fashion, Spall was made to learn painting for two years prior to production. The effect of this work in the film is startling: it’s not so much that Spall reproduces Turner’s paintings before our eyes, it’s more that he is physically inseparable from the canvas.
Credit also must to go to Mike Leigh, who in 40 years has never made a bad film, and, on the contrary, has written and directed several classics — Bleak Moments, Naked, Topsy-Turvy. Mr. Turner is among his best. It never tries to become a painting, but it understands cinema as painting life with light.