Mike Leigh returns to Cannes with this biopic of JMW Turner, and it is also his return to a period drama set in Victorian England since Topsy-Turvy wowed Venice audiences way back in 1999. Timothy Spall appeared in the latter film and has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Leigh, but whereas in the past he has been a reliable support this time the film is all his.

The film deals with Turner’s mature years. Spall as our eponymous hero is an irascible wanderer, harrumphing and snorting his way through his conversations, he’s abandoned his first wife and their two daughters, and he enjoys a groping, fumbling and thrusting relationship with the family housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). Despite these shortcomings, we take to Turner. He is a loving son to his “daddy” (Paul Jesson), he’s a joker and generous with his friends. His apparent dismissal of his wife and daughters, and his crude couplings with Hannah could be explained by the loss of his mother to a lunatic asylum in his youth and the death of his sister when he was eight. This man has learned to give women a wide berth emotionally.

Leigh deals very nicely with the niceties and norms of Victorian society. He also introduces us to Effie Ruskin, another neglected and unloved wife, in a particularly moving scene. We also meet many other notable characters from the age, from Queen Victoria, dissing Turner’s work in German with her husband, to Constable, with whom Turner has a hilarious and childish rivalry. We also see Turner at work, prodigious and indefatigable, tied to a masthead in the middle of a storm or simply walking along the white Kentish cliffs. There are plenty of Turneresque shots of seascapes, in homage to the man’s great works. Spall studied painting for two years in preparation for this film and it shows in the many scenes of Turner at his easel.

When Turner begins a relationship with his perennially sweet-natured and optimistic landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) we see him finally in a happy loving relationship with a woman. Yet his happiness comes at a price: Hannah is neglected as Turner spends time away, her psoriasis worsening as a physical reaction to her sorry state. Although initially appearing as a comic character, Hannah’s trajectory is tragic. Leigh has not created a hagiography of his subject: Turner is no saint and Leigh has depicted all the hues and nuances of this flawed, fascinating and ultimately immensely likeable man. And this is what links this film and Topsy-Turvy to Leigh’s wider body of contemporary films: what they all share is the director’s great sympathy for his characters, with all their faults. Whilst a little too long at just under 2 and a half hours, Leigh has nevertheless created something of a masterpiece.