On several occasions in the past 15 years, during which time Mike Leigh made four acclaimed films about quotidian British life, he and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, found themselves struggling with the weather and remarking to each other as they looked up at the English sky, “We really must make this Turner film.” They were speaking of J.M.W. Turner, the great 19th-century atmospheric painter, who is said to have declared on his deathbed: “The sun is god.”
A deeply radiant, Turner-esque light suffuses Leigh’s portrait of the artist in his later years, but the film’s most striking effect is its impressionistic depiction of history, especially the period when Turner’s work became increasingly gestural. Contrary to biopic convention, Leigh has done away with dates—“a nuisance,” he says—and made little fuss over events other filmmakers might frame as turning points. Instead, there is the march of everyday life, from which not even Turner is exempt: earning a wage; squabbling with colleagues; negotiating with fools; tending to relationships, or, in his case, neglecting them. (Artists—they’re just like us!) “There’s no dramatic tension in a man painting,” Leigh says. But there is in the gap between the sweeping beauty of Turner’s art and the details of his routine. As portrayed by Timothy Spall, the painter is a grandiose, gruff, grunting bear of a man whose single-minded concern is his place in history. But on the way to the canon, he still has to live. “If you’re familiar with my films, everything is interesting about everybody,” Leigh says.