For all his importance to the artistic canon, precious little is known about the painter J.M.W. Turner. The history books give us a very dry account of what appears to be an alternately sad and highly successful life: Turner was the son of a London barber and a mother who was mentally unstable (committed, ultimately, to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in 1799). He was an only child after his sister died at the age of four, but also something of a prodigy: He attended the Royal Academy Schools, hitched a ride on the era’s lucrative landscape-painting trend, then settled comfortably into a public image as a genius. Solitary and unsociable, Turner’s private life is largely unknown except for those details that resonate in his work: He travelled abroad in the summers to sketch, holed up in the winter to realize them on large canvases. He liked spending time with his father, fishing, and, later in life, visiting his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth, who lived in Margate, which was itself suspiciously attractive to him as a painting destination.
All of this background is accounted for in Mr. Turner, a gorgeous, important film that is not a biopic, at least according to its director, Mike Leigh. Given the painstaking extent of the depiction, though—the story spans mid-life to death—it really is one, but you can see why Leigh would be loathe to use the term: To fill in the blanks in Turner’s imprecise biography, Leigh has turned to his own dramatic intuition and his signature improvisational method. The resulting story is playful with the details, loose with the facts, and somewhat unfaithful to the worldview painted by the grand master that is its protagonist. It is also a grand, inspiring work of cinema that stands on its own merits and lovingly, gently portrays the painter, even if it takes some liberties with his darker side.