This Turner is an earthy, straight-forward character who hides his polite learning behind a gruff exterior, suitable for London of his day (Turner was born in 1775 - about the same year as Jane Austen - and died in 1851). You wouldn't be completely off-base if this rendition brought to mind the equally earthy Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who has so profitably been captured in prose imagery by his memoirist James Boswell. I can't say I've read very deeply on Turner but the London Leigh invokes is a familiar place, and it is a place where death is conspicuous by dint of poor hygiene and poor lifestyle choices. (Alcohol seems to form a big part of the daily liquid intake but, as the friend I saw the movie with noted, "You wouldn't drink the water.")
In this bleak and unlovely version of London Turner gradually shifts from a regular and formalist way of painting to a more abstract way, a way where colour formed the main component. (Art lovers might think of the way Goya (1746-1828) shifted from the Mozartian classicism of his youth to the darker, more Beethovian Romanticism of his mature years.) Complex? Turner was part of the London art set yet he also governed his own style, and introduced new ways of seeing as radical as those introduced, for example, into Australia by the Australian Impressionists around the turn of the 20th century. England has never produced many great painters, but Turner must be ranked among the best exports from the Isles in the visual arts.
It's not all bleak and dark in London, however. Turner regularly makes his way out of the city to find adequately sublime landscapes to paint, and it is during one of these trips, to Margate on the Channel, that he meets Sophia Booth, a woman who will become more important to his story over time. Turner's housekeeper in London (up against the bookcase his passionate attentions hardly gain our approval) and his legal wife get shorter shrift but, as I have already said a couple of times, Turner was a distinctly complex man. Which does not mean he was always perfectly likeable.
He does help out those less well-off than himself and - in one striking scene near the movie's close - he even refuses a massive cash offer because, he says, he wants his paintings to go to the British people. Which suggests generosity if also some degree of hubris. But Turner was nothing if not realistic, and he knew his worth. As for the film, it's probably quite enough to say that this movie could never have been made in Hollywood; at least not in the way it has been made in Europe (it's an English-French-German production). Leigh goes some way toward both stripping much of the unnecessary gloss off an historical period as well as reminding us of the disparate ways that genius works. This is a nice, intelligent film, and deserves to be seen by many.