Loving Vincent is the story of the man in the yellow suit (not to be confused with the Man in the Yellow Hat, which is sort of unfortunate because monkey) and his quest to deliver Vincent Van Gogh’s last letter.
The title comes from how Van Gogh signed letters to his brother–“your most loving brother.” The man in the yellow hat, played by Douglas Booth, has a letter for Theo. It’s a year after Van Gogh’s death. Little does Booth know his quest will reveal Theo’s died as well. Upon that discovery, Booth heads to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived for the last two months of his life.
There, he finds himself in the middle of a mysterious suicide, which Booth turns into an unsolved murder. Loving Vincent, the film, is very wishy washy on having any kind of opinion on the matter. In fact, as Saoirse Ronan chastizes Booth, you’re not supposed to fixate on how Van Gogh died, but how he lived. Oddly, until that point (and even a little later), the film fixates on how Van Gogh dies. It’s constantly pivoting to avoid having to fixate on his living.
First and foremost, the flashback sequences are always narrated–Van Gogh appears all the time, played by Robert Gulaczyk–but he’s never the protagonist, always the subject. The film, I might have mentioned earlier, is the first entirely handpainted motion picture. Ninety-five minutes, 65,000 frames, all oil painted. The actors were filmed in front of green screens. Booth’s quest looks like a Van Gogh painting. In fact, his quest just introducecs him to the other subjects of actual Van Gogh paintings so it’s a Van Gogh painting subject team-up movie.
Except the flashbacks are entirely black and white. And very, very realistic. And directed in an entirely different manner than the present action of the film. There’s a lot of first-person camera work in the flashbacks, which makes things rather urgent, but never visually interesting. Visually competent to be sure, but never visually interesting. All the visual interesting stuff is in the present, for feckless Booth to encounter.
If Loving Vincent were more concerned with being educational–if it were purely educational–it’d be a lot more successful. Instead, the writers–co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman as well as Jacek Dehnel–settle on this didactic tone at the end, condescending to Booth for his interest. As well as the audience’s because if they’re not interested in what Booth’s interested in, there’s no narrative. The movie ends with a song–addressing Vincent Van Gogh–about how he’s now loved, even though he wasn’t when it mattered. Again, if it were an IMAX movie, if it were educational… sure.
But as historical fiction? It’s a bit much.
The direction is a lot of the problem. Kobiela and Welchman are dull in the present. They set up shots like paintings, which then look like paintings, but they’re dramatically inert. You watch Loving Vincent for the visuals (and the visual references), not much else. Except, of course, Chris O’Dowd showing up as a fifty year-old Frenchman with a huge beard (bigger than Van Gogh actually painted it) and O’Dowd’s charming Irish accent.
The accents–well, no one except Gulaczyk has what could might called an authentic accent. It’s a bunch of British actors playing French people with distinct British accents. Gulaczyk might not even being doing a Dutch accent, it might just be his Polish accent, but at least it’s not English.
Acting-wise, Booth is okay. He gets better as the film goes along. The first act is rough as the film sets him out on this quest. John Sessions is fun. Aidan Turner’s all right. Jerome Flynn is all right. He’s not in it enough after all the emphasis the narrative puts on the character; he plays Van Gogh’s doctor for those last two months. He also suffers from the most egregious style shift. In the same scene, thanks to different painters (there were 125 painters who worked on the film), Flynn’s head changes size dramatically between shots.
In the bigger supporting roles–the above actors really only have one scene, except Booth, of course–there are Saorise Ronan as Flynn’s daughter and the object of Van Gogh’s affections, there’s Helen McCrory as Flynn’s disapproving housekeeper, and then Eleanor Tomlinson as the innkeeper’s daughter (where Van Gogh stayed those last two months). McCrory’s an evil harpy without a character. Her animation is also overly brusque, like she’s not worth the attention. Even though the film uses her multiple times as an expository tool.
Ronan’s not great. She’s okay. Eventually. Her animation gets a lot more attention, but none of it to rendering any kind of visual performance. There’s nothing to meet Ronan’s dialogue delivery.
Tomlinson’s great. She and Booth have actual chemistry, something Loving Vincent’s lacking the rest of the time. It’s because Tomlinson even gets a character. She’s got more depth than anyone else, including “protagonist” Booth. Booth gets some backstory and subplots, but nothing consequential. The movie’s not about the characters, it’s not about the crossover, it’s about how the audience cares too much about how Van Gogh died and not enough about how he lived.
So it’s weird the movie’s all about how he died.
The oil painted frames are the draw. Though the film never does anything with it CGI couldn’t do. And the decision to avoid trying to show Van Gogh in the world as he saw it (i.e. his paintings) is a major cop out. One the film tries to cover with a couple readings of his letters.
Again, as a purely educational film, it’d be awesome. But with the attempted narrative? A beautiful technical achievement. And not much else.
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman; written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel; directors of photography, Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal; editors, Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska; music by Clint Mansell; production designers, Matthew Button, Maria Duffek, and Andrzej Rafal Waltenberger; produced by Sean M. Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, and Welchman; released by Altitude Film Distribution.