Mr Turner
Mike Leigh plays revered British artist JMW Turner in Mr Turner Film4

Mike Leigh once more makes a period piece that focuses on the creative process in Mr Turner, a warm, warts-and-all tale of arguably Britain's greatest painter, JMW Turner. Charting the last 20 or so years of the artist's life, this rich, vividly realised drama examines the energy and enthusiasm in which Turner lived, and the period of rapid technological innovation that helped fuel his most visionary work.

A grotesque eccentric, Turner's appearance did not stop him creating works of profound beauty, and despite his working-class background, the phenomenal success of his paintings placed him among the upper echelons of Victorian high society. These contradictory qualities are all perfectly captured by Timothy Spall, the quintessential character actor who here gives the performance of his career in the title role.

Leigh sent Spall to study painting for two years in order to realistically paint on screen, but it's everything else that Spall does with his body that makes his Turner stand out in every scene as if in a pop-up children's book.

Fully inhabiting the role, he huffs and puffs as he goes about his work, grunting and groaning like a farmyard animal. The smorgasbord of non-verbal responses that he emits throughout are extraordinary, presenting Turner as a person whose every action must be instinctively expelled rather than thoughtfully processed.

When hearing of a prostitute's young age his sobbing comes in violent fits and starts, and in another scene set at an old country house he gets so caught up in his work that he spits at the canvas, both shocking the aristocratic guests and highlighting to us how symbiotically linked the artist is with his creation.

He does also speak with warmth and affection to others, especially to the two most important people in his life; his father William, who raised him by himself after Turner's mother was committed to a mental asylum, and his late mistress Mrs Booth, who provided a safe harbour to what was for Turner sometimes a turbulent existence.

While Paul Jesson and Marion Bailey are radiant in these two roles, it is perhaps the tragic side-story of Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the loyal maid in love with Turner, but whom he used only as a sexual plaything, which strikes the saddest note throughout the picture.

These relationships that make up Turner's life, along with his artistic travails from Holland to Margate, form a narrative that in the style of Leigh's previous efforts never feels the need to stoop to creating artificial tension or melodrama. Every chapter glows with sharp detail, as both Turner's life and the world around him inexorably moves forward.

Often panning between stunning vistas to the silhouette of Turner sketching his surroundings, including one visually teasing shot in which what appears to be the grey blobs of a watercolour painting pulls away to show Turner scrabbling around the rocks of the Brecon Beacons, we are shown a man who lived to paint and document the fast-changing world around him. No wonder he feels so threatened when in a humorous scene he goes to have his picture taken by one of the early pioneers of photography, JE Mayall.

Like Turner himself, the movie's 150 minute running time leaves a bit too much fat around the edges, and some scenes come across more prosaic than profound. But this is a film which manages to capture the artist's creative exuberance and tireless work ethic with such spirited joie de vivre that it puts the majority of by-the-numbers biopics to shame. With warmth and wit, Leigh has crafted an intimate portrait of an epic painter for the ages.

Mr Turner will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 31 October.