By now, you'll likely have heard the story of Loving Vincent's production, representing as it does a technical breakthrough and a backwards gaze. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman shot a live-action drama - set a year after Vincent van Gogh's death, and riffing on a legend concerning the delivery of a letter the tragic painter had addressed to his brother Theo - then employed 100 predominantly Polish artists to handpaint over each frame in the established van Gogh style. (Something about this project speaks to the tireless industry of our Polish friends: we may have cause to miss these artisans in the years ahead.) Radically different filmmakers - Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, Maurice Pialat - have sought to revisit this moment in art history, but Loving Vincent is the first movie to attempt a literal reproduction of the painter's shades, textures and moods, tilting as it does at the same windmills and lingering in sunflower fields. Here is a film that begs to be seen and swooned over, even as it struggles on a minute-by-minute basis to reconcile the incredible sophistication of its toplayer with the humdrum artlessness lurking beneath it.
My suspicion is that the live-action drama Kobiela and Welchman shot was basically Europudding, jampacked with RADA graduates whose plummy regional accents stick out like a sore thumb in these particular Low Countries. The letter proves to be the basis of a quest narrative broadly as uninspired as that of any recent kids' animation: our blank-slate messenger-surrogate (Douglas Booth) hops from guest star to guest star (Chris O'Dowd, Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan) trying to find or figure something out, giving rise to a succession of monotonous Q&A sessions designed to stretch a van Gogh conspiracy theory out to fit a 95-minute feature. You could be excused for zoning out during these and refocusing your attentions on the pretty pictures, because they are very pretty indeed - it helps that Kobiela and Welchman chose to animate the likes of Booth, Ronan and Eleanor Tomlinson rather than, say, authentically grizzled Flanders farmers - but the editorial reframing of Vincent as a deeply troubled man, plagued by that depression and insecurity that has traditionally dogged artists through the ages, is undermined by the fact the writing has been undertaken with far less skill than the painting. The result is a beautifully polished curate's egg: you end up torn between wanting to hit pause to better admire the unarguable visual achievement, and an urge to lunge instead for the mute and fast-forward buttons.
Loving Vincent is available on DVD through Altitude from tomorrow.