The makers of the animated marvel “Loving Vincent” set about two gargantuan tasks: to capture the beauty of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings on film and to explore the enduring mystery of the Dutch painter’s final weeks and untimely suicide in 1890.
Where directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who spearheaded this seven-year labor of love, may have fallen short in explaining Van Gogh’s early death, their luminous animation — 65,000 frames, all oil paintings by a crew of 125 artists — makes you feel the delicacy and urgency of his brushstrokes.
The script, written by the directors and Jacek Dehnel, begins a year after Van Gogh’s death at age 37 in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. Nearby in Arles, the town postman, Joseph Roulin (performed by Chris O’Dowd), asks his son Armand (performed by Douglas Booth) to deliver the artist’s final letter to his brother, Theo. The problem is that Theo died six months after Vincent did, so Armand isn’t sure to whom he should deliver the letter.
After meeting Julien Tanguy (performed by John Sessions), who used to sell Vincent his paints, Armand goes to Auvers to learn what he can of the painter’s last days. He is eager to meet Dr. Paul Gachet (performed by “Game of Thrones’” Jerome Flynn), but the doctor is away on business.
While waiting for the doctor’s return, Armand talks to Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (performed by Saoirse Ronan) and the family’s stern housekeeper, Louise (performed by Helen McCrory). Other town figures, from a charming innkeeper to a chatty boatman (performed by “Poldark” stars Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner) help fill in pieces of Vincent’s timeline, seen in flashbacks (with Polish actor Robert Gulaczyk portraying Van Gogh).
In spite of some diversions — like a conspiracy-theorist doctor (performed by Bill Thomas) who thinks Van Gogh was murdered — the story itself is a fairly straightforward tale of an artist beset by demons that even his artistic talent couldn’t overcome. But “Loving Vincent” is a rare case where what happens is less important than how it’s told.
Koiela and Welchman employ the old-school technique of rotoscoping — filming actors, then animating their moves — to capture the people in Van Gogh’s orbit. Then the team of animators emulate Van Gogh’s technique, and borrow his images, to pay tribute to his portraiture.
Anyone familiar with Van Gogh’s works will recognize the bearded postman Roulin or the squat Tanguy, and especially the pensive Dr. Gachet (a portrait of whom sold for $82.5 million in 1990), and smile at how the animators have brought those images to life. For neophytes, the film ends with a scrapbook of sorts that connects the dots.
“Loving Vincent” — the title comes from the way Van Gogh signed his letters — is a living, breathing tribute to Van his genius and his struggle to create. Anyone who appreciates art, or wants to learn how, will find delight in it.
* * * 1/2
The last days of Vincent Van Gogh are recounted in a luminous movie animated through oil paintings.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 27.
Rated • PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking.
Running time • 94 minutes.