By Keith Staskiewicz
Updated December 30, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST
Simon Mein

J.M.W. Turner was a master of light and image, but what stands out most about him in Mike Leigh’s captivating biographical film is a sound. Playing the renowned Victorian-era English painter, Timothy Spall grunts and expectorates his way through his scenes, chugging along with the phlegmy belch of an old jalopy or, as the film suggests more than once, a snuffling pig. Like Mozart’s maniacal laugh in Amadeus, it’s an observed detail used to chisel an artistic genius off his pedestal and turn him human once more.

Turner’s preferred subject during the period depicted here (1830-51) was seascapes, whereas Leigh’s has always been people. Yet the men share the understanding that exact replication is its own kind of lie. Reality is as tempestuous and indistinct as Turner’s proto-impressionist skies, and Leigh intelligently eschews the typical biopic approach—the film focuses on the last two decades of Turner’s life—in favor of broader, evocative strokes that form the portrait of a man who was by turns sour and sweet, base and cultured. There’s a sense that his epicurean guzzling and animalistic lustfulness are related directly to his appreciation of a Purcell aria or a sunrise, or even his fascination with science. When confronted with a then-newfangled camera, he responds with probing interest, as well as a professional relief that it can’t yet capture color. And he invites naturalist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) to his studio to demonstrate an experiment in which violet light magnetizes a needle. Leigh crafts Turner as a man who wants to consume, visually and otherwise, as much earthly beauty, mystery, and experience as he can. When he’s informed of his impending demise, Turner is perturbed most by the prospect of becoming a ”non-entity,” a closed shutter through which the sunlight can no longer pour.

Mr. Turner itself is suffused with light and framed in gorgeous, tactile tableaux. Leigh occasionally pushes down a little too hard on the brush—his portrayal of the art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as an insufferable lisping dilettante borders on parody—but the overall effect is one of profound subtlety. To use a word often associated with Turner and his art, it’s sublime. A