Review: At Eternity’s Gate
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikklesen, and Oscar Isaac
Directed by Julian Schnabel
At Eternity’s Gate explores Vincent Van Gogh’s mental health through the painter’s eyes, showing us nature and events as he perceives them.
At Eternity’s Gate’s first act is slow, with parts that ostensibly drag on and add little to the narrative. This is intentionally the case, however, and it is worth persevering for what follows.
Van Gogh is depicted as a misunderstood figure in his community, dismissed as a pariah whose local community fear and revile him. Van Gogh’s art style and work are not appreciated in his own time. Somewhat prophetically, he says that he creates for people who are not born yet.
At Eternity’s Gate takes us up close and then shows us things through his eyes, a shaky camera and claustrophobia-inducing mise-en-scène completing the effect. It is at points a jarring film to watch. Director Julian Schnabel clearly understands the power of not showing everything, however, and a time jumps spares the audience from seeing Van Gough slice off his own ear. The film also makes interesting use of colour, with cold blue backgrounds contrasting with bright yellows at other points.
While it is widely accepted that the artist committed suicide, local rumour long held that he was shot by two young boys and did not want them to be blamed, a theory held by at least one forensics expert, but hotly debated. Presenting the event in the way that it does, At Eternity’s Gate is likely to generate its share of controversy.
Willem Dafoe has received his share of Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh, having already taken Best Actor at the Venice film festival. Watching his performance in this film shows why. In preparing for the role, he immersed himself in the artist’s life, and his research shows. Oscar Isaac plays Van Gogh’s confidant and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Mads Mikkleson only has one scene, but his role as a Catholic priest who discusses theology and art with Vincent adds extra gravitas.
At Eternity’s Gate should be regarded as a sleeper contender for many other awards. More importantly, its exploration of social ostracism, mental health, and yes, theology, mean that it should be watched and discussed.
At Eternity’s Gate opens nationally in cinemas on 14 February.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor