We’ve already had a few fine cinematic attempts to tell the story of the brilliant yet tortured Vincent van Gogh, including the 1956 masterpiece Lust for Life and Robert Altman’s 1990 character study Vincent & Theo, which focused on the relationship between the artist and his supportive brother. Despite their colorful efforts, the one element missing was the beautiful, slightly unsettling look of Van Gogh’s groundbreaking artwork.
Loving Vincent, the latest from animators Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, is the first of these biopics to get it right. That’s because the entire film is composed of actual paintings: The international production employed more than 100 artists to paint each frame of the film on canvas, copying the thick brushstrokes and brash colors of Van Gogh’s most celebrated works. The resulting movie is stunning—a dream-like vision that flutters and vibrates with energy.
The rest of Loving Vincent doesn’t hit the same heights. Kobiela and Welchman’s script is a leaden, Citizen Kane-style attempt to investigate Van Gogh’s final days in France through the efforts of Armand (Douglas Booth), a young postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s final letter.
It’s a well-meaning way to let us cross paths with many of the villagers whom Van Gogh painted, but it’s hampered by conspiracy theories and a lumbering pace. It doesn’t help that all the performances—courtesy of an incongruous lineup of British and Irish actors, including Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd—are bereft of the life they were given through the artist’s brushstrokes. (Booth, especially, strikes his one note of frustrated bewilderment with terse, canvas-chewing fervor.) It’s not enough to detract from all the animated eye candy, but it does keep Loving Vincent from achieving the brilliance its subject deserves.