Cumberbatch and Van Gogh in the same frame. Fascinating.

Today, I was discussing the new film ‘Loving Vincent’ with an Art student. Apparently, it is a really exciting and ambitious film, to be released this year, in which Van Gogh’s troubled and brilliant life is told through animation; there will be 56,800 hand-painted frames in the entire film in the style of the artist. I watched the trailer and I now I think I have to see the film! It promises to be stunning, breathtaking and beautiful. Directed mainly in Poland by painter Dorota Kobiela, the ground breaking film will be a real feast for the eyes.

A year ago, I was in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. A few hours in the museum, traipsing from one painting to the next, is exhausting emotionally. It’s as if you have been on a visual whirligig of his life, unsettling, incredible and in full colour. I recall looking at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, ‘Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, 1887’, and having a strong sense of Vincent the man. In the picture, he is gaunt and hunched: his eyes don’t meet ours, wherever we stand. He is solitary, singular and sad. Then again, I saw ‘Self Portrait’, 1889, the one against the blue background.Vincent’s mouth is set and stubborn but his eyes are unsettled, his beard fiery red and the whirling blue behind him makes me think of his intense mental confusion. By this point, he had committed himself to an asylum in St Remy, having argued with Gauguin and cut off a portion of his own ear.

Today, for no particular reason, someone gave me a film and recommended that I watch it. It is the docu-drama  ‘Painted with Words,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Van Gogh. Released in 2010, and featuring only Van Gogh’s own words through his letters, narration from Alan Yentob and some talking heads from other actors playing Theo Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and other influences, it tells Van Gogh’s life story in flashback from the hospital in Provence.

This film had somehow passed me by, but it shouldn’t have. Cumberbatch is an ideal actor to play Van Gogh, not only visually, with his light hair and beard and intense blue gaze, but because of his intelligent interpretation of the painter’s character. Cumberbatch’s Van Gogh is self-absorbed, obsessive, often a little lachrymose and tender hearted, and his portrayal is sensitive and believable. We know what will happen at the end of the story: we know about his unrequited love obsessions, his loneliness, his excessive absinthe drinking, his friendship and quarrels with Gauguin.

But Cumberbatch delivers on empathy, often merely by talking to the camera.His ability to use pause, pace, non-verbal language and vocal expression is stunning, as are his excellent facial expressions. His eye contact and then the lack of it, his moments of self absorbed musings, create a portrait of the artist as a troubled genius and Van Gogh’s painted and drawn masterpieces are his props, which makes for a powerful depiction.

‘Painted With Words’ is a thorough film, covering Vincent’s time in England, his inappropriate love for his cousin Kee, his  fractured relationship with his father and, above all, his dependence on the good nature and support of his brother, Theo. It touches upon his love for his mistress, Sien, whom he found as a pregnant prostitute and took her in, using her as the model for paintings such as ‘Sorrow’.The film deals with his life in  France, his loneliness, his obsessive need to paint and his descent into bipolar illness. Here Cumberbatch excels. Vincent is a driven artist and his genius is his enemy.  He separates himself from a world of people  he does not completely understand in order to paint it’s natural beauty.

Van Gogh’s paintings and  drawings, many which he gave away to his brother, feature powerfully, telling a story by themselves, as his work changes in its influence, from his early copies of others’ styles, studies such as ‘The Fisherman on the Beach’, to ‘Sorrow’ and then the wonderful ‘Potato Eaters’.Then  came his fascination with colour: self portraits, Japanese art, bright fields, flowers, then the superb ‘Starry Night’ in 1889. At times, he could complete a painting in a day. By the end of his life he had created well over 900 pieces of Art.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very  likeable Van Gogh and he creates a tragic figure. It is a unique portrait of an incredible artist using only his own words, and it is a moving film. Often misjudged and, at times, misjudging and ill-treating himself, Vincent is a man obsessed with his work. It is the only area in which he excels, having failed in other areas of his life: conventional paid work, religion, parents, friends and love.

Cumberbatch shows us Vincent’s youthful enthusiasm, his growing pains, his losses and mistakes and tantrums, but he remains a character with integrity and compassion. We notice the resolution with which Vincent accepts his isolation and his illness, as if his paintings are the greater part of the man, subsuming his soul. Vincent is tormented, unsupported and alone and the final moments of the film show him eating his  paint in a suicide attempt and finally shooting himself in the chest in a field of golden wheat, (although there are other theories about his death, including the idea that he may have been murdered).

It will always be an irony that Vincent Van Gogh is lauded now and yet he had little celebration or payment for his genius in his lifetime. It may be too late for him, but films such as ‘Loving Vincent’ are a great tribute to a unique artist. Benedict Cumberbatch credits him with a depth of character and an obsessive talent which may have initially  balanced the banalities in his life, but later Vincent became two polarised characters, the genius painter and the flawed man. ‘Painted with Words’ is a superb film, another triumph by one of the greatest actors of our time as he portrays one of the greatest artists ever.


2 thoughts on “Cumberbatch and Van Gogh in the same frame. Fascinating.

  1. Jo Vick

    I came across Painting With Words on BBC4 quite by accident in Jan 2022. I was spellbound and emotional by the strength of Dominic Cumberbach’s portrayal of Vincent Van Gough purely from Van Gough’s own words and cannot believe it has taken me so long to find this equally wonderful piece of art.

    Liked by 1 person

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