Though through his work we feel an intimate bond and connection to the Dutch pioneer (played here by Robert Gulaczyk) – there’s a sense of mystery about his life, and particularly, the very end of it, when he committed suicide at the age of 37. We delve into this set of events through Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) who had sat for many a portrait at the hands of Van Gogh, now turning into something of a detective, to get to the bottom of this elusive set of affairs. Through this narrative device, we meet the artist’s postman (Chris O’Dowd), Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), as well as Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) and the Boatman (Aidan Turner) amongst others – each recounting their own series of events as our narrator Armand vies to understand exactly what happened during the eponymous artist’s final months.
Taking seven years to complete, this labour of love makes for a rewarding experience for viewer, for it’s an indelible visual experience, ineffably moving in parts, as it’s hard not to be blown away by the sheer ambition and scope of a film that has been hand-drawn to match, exactly, the style of the subject it’s depicting. It takes a while to get used to however, but by the close of play you barely notice it – so dynamic in its execution, with a persistent use of brushstrokes to help move this tale forward.
The actors are not merely lending their vocals to the project either, for they’ve been drawn, and the filmmakers do a fine job of capturing the nuances of the performers, as you imagine they must’ve shot this as a live-action piece, and then recreated it using paint. It’s an original idea, and allows the audience to not attempt to understand Van Gogh by screenwriters putting words in his mouth we’ll never know whether he said or not – but instead through his work, and given how much of himself he projected onto the canvas, there’s no better place to start.
It’s interesting too to effectively present a biopic that is set after the subject’s death (though he is used in black and white painted flashbacks) – to make for a unique exploration of his life. For we meet all of those he left behind, to discover the impact Van Gogh had on them all, learning instead through anecdotes, and it’s hard not to leave enlightened by the time the credits roll.