Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend
Watch At Eternity’s Gate online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Willem Dafoe is the kind of actor who’s so good you don’t even notice. From The Florida Project to The Hunter, he disappears into the smallest of characters with the kind of dedication and fervour that made him equally outlandish as the larger-than-life Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. He couldn’t be further away from that with this biopic of Vincent van Gogh, which may well go down in history alongside his work in The Last Temptation of Christ – it’s a remarkable, moving, profound portrait of a tortured man trapped in his own solitude.
We meet the artist as he finds himself unappreciated and struggles, both financially and professionally – a display of works in a tiny pub in Montmartre only inspires him to leave Paris and head to the rural town of Arles. It’s a move that’s encouraged by fellow painter Gaugin (Isaac), who shares both an affinity and respect with his contemporary, as well as a mutual passion for disagreeing about all things art. The other notably figure in Vincent’s life is his brother, Theo (Friend), an art dealer who supports him with a monthly allowance and never fails to appear when Vincent gets into trouble.
For a large chunk of the film, though, we simply watch van Gogh alone, as he walks the countryside, gleaning inspiration and fascination from the natural world, to the point where his awestruck supplication borders on existential pain. It’a tricky thing to convey and Dafoe does with acute anxiety and sincere vulnerability, carrying the whole movie on his shoulders. But the more the film strives to match its leading man, the more it risks distracting from him; Van Gogh’s interactions with others range from French to English with a frustrating inconsistency, while his moments away from society are repeatedly accompanied by clips of dialogue we’ve already heard in voiceover.
Director Julian Schnabel is no stranger to internalised anguish or creative suffering, and there’s something of The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly in his lyrical visuals, which strive to capture van Gogh’s intense bouts of depression. But the reliance on split diopter camera shots to echo his temperament, mixed with handheld sequences and daubed with Tatiana Lisovskaya’s intentionally dissonant piano score, results in an experience that can be too self-consciously overwhelming for its own good; the best moments tellingly, are simple and stripped back, from an exchange between Vincent and a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) to a faintly disconcerting request from van Gogh for a woman in the road to stop so he can paint her.
The film’s decision not to depict the artist’s famous cutting of his ear is a smart show of restraint and understatement, but only highlights the lack of such qualities elsewhere. Van Gogh deserves more than a conventional biopic, but At Eternity’s Gate affectionate determination to give him that threatens to pass through the doorway to the other extreme, obfuscating when you want it to be illuminating – a disappointment after the similarly idiosyncratic, jaw-dropping Loving Vincent. Willem Dafoe delivers one of his best performances to date; it’s just a shame that the film doesn’t always let you appreciate it fully.