Van Gogh’s paintings come to life in animation biopic Loving Vincent

Actors such as Chris O'Dowd (above) play real people in scenes that mimic Vincent van Gogh's paintings.
Actors such as Chris O'Dowd (above) play real people in scenes that mimic Vincent van Gogh's paintings.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

REVIEW / ANIMATION BIOPIC

LOVING VINCENT (M18)

95 minutes/Opens today/ 3.5 stars

The story: A year after the death by suicide of painter Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk), postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) still has a letter from the artist he has been unable to deliver. So he sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) across France, speaking to those who might have known van Gogh. Armand's trip brings to light information about the doomed artist's final months.

This is a movie based on a gimmick, but what a gimmick it is. More than a hundred artists from 20 countries were recruited to paint, in the style of the film's subject, each of the 65,000 frames that make up this 95-minute feature.

The phrase "every frame is a painting" is overused, but in the case of this Oscar-nominated work (for Best Animation Feature), it is literally, eye-poppingly true.

Van Gogh's paintings already shimmer and swirl on canvas. Here, because of the animation, the painter's images of postmen, farmers and country doctors come to life in glorious squiggle-vision.

In this Poland-Britain co-production, the performances of O'Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and John Sessions were captured on camera, playing real people made famous in van Gogh's paintings, arranged in scenes that mimic his portraits of them.

These shots were then painted over in oils, a method that took four years, prompting its makers to call it "the slowest form of film-making devised in 120 years".

That effort at slow film would have been all for nothing if the story was poor.

There have been several documentaries and inspired-by movies about van Gogh, the unofficial patron saint of tortured, starving artists everywhere. This version of his life story ranks near the top, if only because it serves as a compelling visual reminder of what a revolutionary thinker he was.

Early in the film, the plot contrivance of Armand coaxing van Gogh recollections out of people for the sake of a letter wears out its welcome.

Thankfully, co-directors and co-writers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman seem aware of this, so there is no straining for dramatic effect. In a series of two-hander vignettes, the film-makers let the anecdotes - some famous, such as the ear story, some not - do the work, with results that are surprisingly moving.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2018, with the headline 'Van Gogh's paintings come to life in Loving Vincent'. Print Edition | Subscribe