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Film Reviews Review: At Eternity’s Gate paints a timeless yet urgent portrait of Vincent van Gogh

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate.

Lily Gavin/CBS Films

  • At Eternity’s Gate
  • Directed by Julian Schnabel
  • Written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and Julian Schnabel
  • Starring Willem Dafoe
  • Classification PG
  • 110 minutes

rating

With shaky camera movement, intense close-ups and deep vistas, painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme invite you to walk in Vincent van Gogh’s shoes as the artist tramps the countryside around Arles, communing ecstatically with nature and clashing with the uncomprehending locals.

The results are highly affecting – so much so, that viewers who suffer from motion sickness may find the film hard to watch. If the approach feels empathetic rather than pretentious, it’s thanks to a crucial anchor: Willem Dafoe’s subtle and humble performance conjures a pitiable van Gogh, shredded by doubt and estranged from people, yet urgently aware of his painterly vision.

Drawing heavily on van Gogh’s letters to his art dealer brother Theo, the script sometimes overstates its case, in early expository scenes in Paris, in pronouncements of the artist’s destiny. But At Eternity’s Gate mainly succeeds, dusting off a century’s worth of global celebrity to both animate a suffering soul and rescue a radical artistic mission from the museum gift shop.

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At Eternity’s Gate opens Nov. 23 in Toronto.

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