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‘Mr. Turner’: A towering performance in a visually stunning biopic

As director Mike Leigh weaves his cinematic magic and draws you — sometimes gently, more often jarringly — into his majestic “Mr. Turner,” you often feel you are indeed living inside one of J.M.W. Turner’s amazing landscapes or seascapes. Thanks to the partnership of Leigh and his brilliant cinematographer, Dick Pope, this film is one of the most stunning visual treats to have been released this year.

But “Mr. Turner” is far more than merely an explosion of color and toned nuance for the eye. The real reason to make this a must-see of this holiday season is to revel in the Oscar-worthy acting talent of Leigh’s veteran player Timothy Spall.

This hugely gifted actor simply gives life to the extremely complicated, often crude and rude yet groundbreaking 19th century British artist whose Romantic landscapes paved the way for the Impressionists who would follow decades later.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was not very likable and often was extremely cruel, especially to the women in his life. That included his long-suffering housekeeper, whom he often treated as a sexual release, and his daughters born out of wedlock, whom he barely acknowledged as his own.

Related: Timothy Spall artfully steps into famed artist’s shoes

When he wanted to, Turner could turn on the charm and display a quick wit. But more often his obsession with his art overtook all else.

The key element to Leigh’s film is how he shows us Turner’s main gift of understanding how the play of light in nature could be translated onto his canvases — an enormous quantity of works the painter churned out, which we fortunately can enjoy 150-plus years after his death.

While Leigh’s sprawling, 2 1/2-hour movie may seem too long for some, I found it enchanting and easily fell into the filmmaker’s rhythm.

The director made an intriguing decision. While Turner was a true prodigy — selling his paintings in his father’s London barbershop while still a child, and becoming a member of the prestigious Royal Academy at the unheard-of age of 14 — Leigh focused his attention on the final quarter-century of Turner’s life.

We are made witness to the artist’s crass lifestyle, his whoring around and also his final connection with a kind widow, with whom he secretly lived a separate life, away from his notoriety and controversial encounters with colleagues and competitors at the Royal Academy.

Like many geniuses, Turner was far from an easy human being, but in the end we are made aware that his awe-inspiring paintings more than offset his personal failings.

It’s made clear that the early death of Turner’s mother — likely a paranoid schizophrenic — had a huge impact on his development. More positive was his relationship with his devoted father (played with gentle beauty by Paul Jesson), a man who understood his son’s failings but forgave them in tribute to his amazing artistic talent.

I can’t say enough about the power of Spall’s performance. The actor learned to paint to play the role, which adds another wonderful grace note to how he inhabits the character of J.M.W. Turner. Watching Spall wield a paintbrush or even smear spittle into his still-wet oils is an experience that adds so much to the phenomenal expression of acting brilliance presented here.

[s3r star=4/4]

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Mike Leigh. Running time: 149 minutes. Rated R (for some sexual content). Opens Thursday at local theaters.