Granted, there is no shortage of Vincent van Gogh’s biopics. Just last year audiences were treated to the gorgeous, underwhelmingly written Loving Vincent. At Eternity’s Gate takes a different approach, one focused on Vincent’s drive, as opposed to his mental health. Of course the signposts are there, but the movie makes a noticeable effort to keep the assorted tragedies that befell Vincent at bay.
As per At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent (Willem Dafoe) was a man ahead of his time. This is not necessarily a good thing when you are a starving artist and impressionism is all the rage. Following advice by Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh trades the increasingly toxic Parisian scene for the tranquility of Arles in the South of France.
While the painter clashes constantly with the town dwellers, the period is particularly prolific. During his time there, Van Gogh produces “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Night Café”, and a number of self-portraits. Unfortunately, his ongoing quarrels with friends and neighbours and his “break-up” with Gauguin send him on a downward spiral. Utter loneliness plays a bigger part on Van Gogh’s fate than any other factor, including mental unrest.
Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) depicts Van Gogh as a delicate soul that’s easily rattled. Likely because of his background as a plastic artist, Schnabel succeeds at capturing the drive that kept Van Gogh going, despite the scorn of the general public and indifference of his peers. The filmmaker’s obvious regard for his subject is manifest throughout, to the point of keeping the self-mutilation bit off-screen (in fairness, the ear thing has become an obnoxious trope).
While 25 years older than the painter when he died, Willem Dafoe is perfect for the part, the right mix of helpless and mercurial. Less fortunate is the casting of baby-faced Rupert Friend as Van Gogh’s barely younger brother. Schnabel brings back actors from his previous films for supporting roles, but the one who fares the best is a new hire: Mads Mikkelsen as the priest who runs the asylum where Van Gogh is committed. Compassionate and all, he doesn’t think much of the artist’s work and lets him know it. A rare moment of levity in a film carrying a heavy heart. 3.5/5 planets.
At Eternity’s Gate is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.