Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things. But, vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things. Or make them unimportant.”

Very awkward to review, this one. Tony Curran is magnificent, as are the regulars, and indeed Bill Nighy. It’s brilliantly made and I can admire the construction of the script hugely. It’s clearly moved a lot of people. I want to like it a lot more than I do, but I feel awkwardly equivocal about it, as I do a lot of post- Four Weddings and a Funeral Richard Curtis stuff. Well-constructed this may be, but the emotional heart of it all just misfires for me.

The cinematography (is that an appropriate tern for television?) is unremittingly fantastic, though. There’s nothing like a few famous paintings on which to base things for us to get some absolutely astounding scenes. From the opening in the Provencal (well, Croatian) fields of wheat, to the café, to the evocation of “Starlight on the Rhone, to Vincent’s use of a certain famous chair to beat back the monster, this episode looks gorgeous and amazing.

The first thirty minutes are just a little dull, though. It looks great and it’s well-performed but there’s little in the way of action or dramatic oomph, nor is there any particularly clever or subtle quiet moment. It’s fun to hear the Mummerset accents of Provence, but much of the build-up feels like a re-run of The Shakespeare Code, with Amy making similar jokes about paintings as the earlier Doctor did about plays. This starts out as rather celebrity-historical-by-numbers. Oh, and Vincent Van Gogh died less than two months after this is set, and would not have had both ears. Probably reasons not to show that, though…

This all pretty much pays off once we see Van Gogh’s first depressive episode, though; weeping on his bed, he just wants the Doctor and Amy to go away and leave him alone. And the words “I know how it will end. And it will not end well”, have a horrible depth to them. Suddenly, the script and Curran are evoking real despair.

It’s right that we see this, but it’s equally right that we should see only a glimpse; Curran’s performance is subtle and admirable, portraying Van Gogh’s depression while still allowing him to be likeable. There’s a balance to be struck here in portraying serious mental illness in a programme watched by children and it’s struck perfectly.

There’s comedy, too: the Doctor’s impatience as they wait for the Krafayis, “I had an excellent, if smelly, godmother”- but there’s tragedy for Amy, too, though she remembers nothing. The Doctor’s been strangely nice to her of late, and Van Gogh can “hear the song” of her sadness, which causes her to cry real tears even though she can’t remember their cause. Her bond with Van Gogh is interesting; he seems to be genuinely besotted and is brave for her sake. She’s “not the marrying kind”, though.

It’s as well we see only glimpses of the Krafayis in the church; it has some slight Myrka-like tendencies. It would be churlish to dwell on this, though. It’s a genuinely scary moment, and it’s great that the brave Vincent should both save the day and feel real remorse at accidentally killing a frightened, blind creature. This creates a genuine bond between the three of them, and the subsequent scene on the grass is wonderful.

The final sequence- in which the Doctor and Amy take Vincent to the future, he’s overwhelmed by a wonderful speech from Dr Black about what a great artist he is, but upon returning he still takes his own life- just doesn’t work for me, though. It’s not the whole “hang on, aren’t they trying to change history” thing: I think there’s more than enough artistic justification here. It’s just that I really, really don’t like having my emotions manipulated in a crude way by montages overlaid by music which tells me how to feel, least of all some bloody landfill indie rubbish like Athlete! I don’t like it in Spielberg, and I don’t like it in Richard Curtis. To me, using this sort of sentimental schmaltz to convey deep emotion is distasteful. And it’s didactic; I like to feel emotions naturally, not have them dictated to me. And that’s what really alienates me. It’s all very well-constructed, and the Doctor’s speech about good things and bad things is amazing, but it does nothing for me.

So, this looks really great, is very well-performed indeed, has fantastic dialogue, and its handling of difficult themes for an audience including many children is genuinely brilliant, but the script fails in its emotional mission for the same sort of reason as, well, Love Actually. Still, a very high 4/5.

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