The painter Vincent Van Gogh has died by his own hand in the rural village he had made his home recently, but it seems few are too concerned about his suicide, as if it was an inevitability rather than a personal tragedy. But he was a regular letter writer, and he has left one of those missives behind to be posted to his brother Theo in Paris, however it has been returned to the post office as undeliverable and the postmaster (Chris O'Dowd), feeling upset at the death, wants someone to accept it. To that end, he sets his unemployed son Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) on the case, though the wayward young man may not be ideal for the task and seeks out a mystery to solve...
That mystery being, did Vincent kill himself or was he murdered? Considering nobody ever thought that a fit subject for a film before, you may be able to work out the answer to that question, as while Van Gogh had been used as a subject in the past, whether in Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas nominated for an Oscar for his trouble as the artist, or in Robert Altman's try at the man's tale in Vincent and Theo, or even Martin Scorsese popping up in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams for a bit to impersonate the genius, placing him at the centre of a murder yarn may have come across as a desperate bid to modernise a tale of the nineteenth century in terms the average television watcher might be attracted to.
Rather than the average art gallery aficionado, and it was true much of Loving Vincent was banal in its approach, whether that be its made-up plot bolted onto a life that after all was perfectly compelling on its own without roping the poor man into this sort of conundrum, or in its dialogue which was at best functional and at worst foolishly obvious. But if this was an accurate assessment, why was the production so worth your time? It was all in the visual technique, a mass of oil paintings assembled to animate Van Gogh's life, in flashback granted, in light of the Citizen Kane-style investigation into the recently deceased to fathom his motives and the meaning of his existence.
Watching those meticulously painted images, every one as close to Vincent's artistry as possible, as if he had crafted the film himself posthumously somehow, it was easy to be enchanted even as the sound of the chit-chat almost, but not quite, undercut the power of what we were seeing. The frames, each one genuinely an oil painting created by around a hundred artists (as we are informed at the beginning) who applied the colours to the footage of the actors who were filmed for the rotoscope method, melted and flowed into one another in a dreamlike, extremely pleasing manner, and understandably the makers made a great deal of attention for themselves by placing this fact of the film's manufacture at the forefront of its publicity. The Van Gogh industry rolled on and this was a part of it.
The whole tale of the tortured artist - and Vincent was in many ways the tortured artist's tortured artist - was so ideally encapsulated within his experiences that it was tempting to observe it was being idealised, fetishized in that his dreadful inner life had its benefits when he created such beauty. One presumes he would have given anything to have been a success in his lifetime, not least because it would have soothed his horrendous self-doubt, and far preferred that to being discovered posthumously, so much so that the old cliché "better late than never" is a dry joke when the circumstances of precisely that state of affairs did no good to the artist himself. This was why the sense of exploitation was never far away, no matter that casting a spotlight on Van Gogh went some way to proving his toil was not in vain, and no matter how well-intentioned there was some of that here. But it was superbly realised, and one can only imagine what the man would have thought of an entire film in his signature style. Music by Clint Mansell.