At Eternity's Gate review – Willem Dafoe shines in Julian Schnabel's portrait of Van Gogh

Schnabel’s biopic frames the last years of the artist’s troubled life admirably, highlighting his fiercely painful friendship with Gauguin

Julian Schnabel has made a heartfelt if straightforwardly reverent film about the last years in the life of Vincent van Gogh – acted by Willem Dafoe with all the integrity and unselfconscious ease that you would expect from this great actor.

It is a film that strives to capture the ecstatic presentness, the immersion in the moment and the blazing, almost athletic certainty with which Van Gogh painted, and there are some outstanding moments when Schnabel contrives to let us see his canvases standing alone, in situ, in fields or orchards, the paint almost scintillating – competing with the sunlight itself. Wordless passages show Van Gogh striding through the landscape, transfixed and almost stupefied by what it offers, and Schnabel uses declamatory piano chords on the soundtrack – the secular equivalent, perhaps, of organ music.

As far as the two legendary moments in Van Gogh’s unhappy life go, Schnabel does not dramatise the cutting of the ear – a wise decision – but he does give us a long face-to-face conversation with his doctor about this event (with Van Gogh duly kitted out in the bandage and hat made famous by the self-portrait). The film also accepts the theory, like the recent animation Loving Vincent, that Van Gogh did not take his own life, but was shot by a local delinquent boy.

There are, it has to be said, some uneasy moments. It is all too easy to slip into a kind of pastiche-cliche when it comes to representing Van Gogh’s style and his paintings. Sadly, Schnabel at one or two moments creates what amount to spoof Van Gogh pictures used in the scenes themselves: mock Van Gogh portraits of Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seignier dressed respectively as Dr Paul Gachet and Madame Ginoux, while they are being painted by the great man. Surely Schnabel could have avoided this silliness and pedantry simply by giving us quick glimpses of the real pictures.

Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s art-dealer brother Theo, who sends him a monthly allowance and who periodically shows up, grim-faced, when Vincent is in hospital, or generally in trouble. Oscar Isaac is Gauguin, his best friend, rival and critic; their two personalities were too combustibly strong for them to be in each other’s company for long and Schnabel does justice to the fiercely painful love between them. Again, though, there is pedantry in his simply repeating stretches of dialogue in voiceover, almost immediately after we have seen and heard them said, as if to show how Van Gogh broods incessantly on what has just happened. Mads Mikkelsen has an interesting cameo as a priest, tasked with assessing Van Gogh’s readiness to be released from hospital, and politely appalled by what he considers Van Gogh’s valueless daubs.

The best scenes come when Van Gogh confronts human beings – as opposed to objects. An unruly gang of schoolchildren, together with their rude and reactionary teacher, interrupt Van Gogh while he is outside, hard at work – demanding to know what he is doing, and passing crass judgment. The real crisis comes when Van Gogh, at the height of his frenzied inspiration and insanity, stops a shepherdess on the road, orders her to lie down so that he can sketch her in a certain position – a confrontation that becomes a form of assault.

We have come a long way since the days when John Wayne stormed up to Kirk Douglas after a screening of Douglas’s 1956 Van Gogh biopic and yelled: “We got to play tough strong characters, not these weak queers!” The strength of Van Gogh, his victory in defeat, is now an accepted part of his legend and perhaps Schnabel’s film restates that acceptance a little too easily. A shot at the beginning of the film showing wilted and scorched sunflowers appeared to promise something more unorthodox. Yet what we have is a strong, valuable and intelligent performance from Dafoe, capably captured by Schnabel.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
At Eternity’s Gate review – Van Gogh biopic fades to grey
A colourless rendition of the painter’s last years

Wendy Ide

31, Mar, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Vox Lux review – Natalie Portman powers dark portrait of the fame monster
A school shooting, a teen pop idol and Portman’s jaded diva raise questions about fame and notoriety in Brady Corbet’s social satire

Damon Wise

05, Sep, 2018 @3:25 PM

Article image
Amanda review – a calm, healing film about life after Islamist terror
A well-meaning but sometimes obtuse French drama about a seven-year-old whose mother is killed in a mass shooting

Peter Bradshaw

30, Aug, 2018 @7:47 PM

Article image
The Other Side of the Wind review – lost Orson Welles epic is hurricane of anger and wit
Venice film festival 2018: Edited for release 50 years after it was shot, this autobiographical satire is just as wild, dated and brilliant as you’d expect

Peter Bradshaw

31, Aug, 2018 @12:15 PM

Article image
Willem Dafoe: 'With success come certain things that corrupt you'
The 63-year-old actor talks about playing Vincent van Gogh in Oscar-tipped biopic At Eternity’s Gate and how he’s juggled art and commerce in his career

Amy Nicholson

19, Nov, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Julian Schnabel: ‘Why can’t a white person tell the story of a black person? Everyone is pink inside’
The divisive director and artist on the irrelevance of the Oscars, why facts weren’t important in his new biopic of Vincent Van Gogh and being beyond criticism

Lanre Bakare

05, Apr, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Sisters Brothers review: Jacques Audiard saddles up for a subtle and funny western
The English-language debut from the French director is an all-American delight, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly perfect as sad, squabbling siblings

Peter Bradshaw

02, Sep, 2018 @5:30 PM

Article image
Loving Vincent review – a dreamlike, hand-painted plunge into Van Gogh Land
The artist’s last days appear in swirling, scintillating animated frames – it’s an impressive but weirdly exasperating exercise in style

Peter Bradshaw

10, Oct, 2017 @10:19 AM

Article image
Mrs Lowry and Son review – Redgrave and Spall paint a delicate portrait
Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall steal the show in this low-key tale of the great artist finding success while caring for his curmudgeonly mother

Peter Bradshaw

28, Aug, 2019 @12:15 PM

Article image
A Star Is Born review – Lady Gaga mesmerises in Streisand's shoes
Bradley Cooper directs and co-stars in this outrageously watchable update of the love story doomed by shifting fame

Peter Bradshaw

31, Aug, 2018 @5:15 PM