★★★★★ - STUFF
- Willem Dafoe redefines, raises the bar in portraying Vincent van Gogh.
The life of Vincent van Gogh lends itself ridiculously well to film and filmmakers. And consequently, films on van Gogh are not exactly thin on the ground.
So why would Julian Schnabel feel the need to tell the story again and does he have anything new to bring to the table?
The why is simple. Schnabel is an artist himself, and a considerable talent – the word visionary gets bandied about – behind a camera. There have been missteps, but Schnabel's Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly have earned themselves a very fond place in the memories of anyone who has seen them.
And it was Diving Bell that I was most reminded of while watching At Eternity's Gate. Schnabel has an artist's gift for controlling the tone and palette of his films, conveying the innermost parts of his characters' lives in wordless moments. In full flight – as he is for most of Eternity's Gate – Schnabel works his cameras and his frame compositions in a way that butts right up against the unappealing shores of "experimental" filmmaking, but always pulls back in time to keep the narrative comprehensible and the characters true to their purpose.
Or, to put all that another way, Eternity's Gate – visually and sonically – is an absolute feast of bold decisions and dizzyingly beautiful filmmaking.
Other films have done a pretty decent job of bringing to life van Gogh's canvases and the landscapes that inspired them. Schnabel does all of that, and better than has ever been done before. But he also has a mad and mostly wonderful swing at visualising van Gogh's internal and psychological life. As with Butterfly, we travel behind the eyes of our lead and see the world as Schnabel imagines it must have appeared from that nettlesome perch.
In a very strong year of films, an Oscar nod for cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) wouldn't be any surprise at all.
As van Gogh, Willem Dafoe is pretty much beyond criticism. Neither you or I really know what van Gogh was like, but I didn't doubt a single moment of Dafoe's portrayal. He inhabits the character down to the marrow. And without any artifice or much disguise, carries us along, happy to believe that van Gogh looked and sounded exactly like this.
It is a stunning piece of work in a career littered with wonderful performances. Dafoe has an odd gift for making overwhelming intensity look like a somehow completely natural state of mind, and in van Gogh – he's already been Jesus Christ for Martin Scorsese – I reckon Dafoe has taken on one of the all-time great male roles and reset the bar on just how beautifully it can be brought to life.
At Eternity's Gate, in its best moments, is an intoxicating experience. For the very few moments Schnabel over-reaches, there are a dozen others where he will drop your jaw in wonder. I loved this film.
- Graeme Tuckett, Stuff