Van Gogh Painted With Words Review: Masterstroke
VAN GOGH – PAINTED WITH WORDS: Monday 5th April, BBC1, 5.10pm ALERT ME
Every birthday it gets a little bit harder to find a famous person who amounted to nothing when they were your age.
Bill Gates founded Microsoft aged 20. Boris Becker won at Wimbledon when he was 17. Mozart penned his first symphony aged just eight.
Refreshing then (and a relief for procrastinators everywhere) that the world’s most famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh, took a long time figuring out what to do with his life.
He started a career in an art dealership but was fired. Then he decided he wanted to be a teacher (and moved to Brixton, then Kent) but couldn’t find steady work. Next he studied to become a clergyman but flunked his exams. In fact he failed at pretty much everything he did, until he picked up a pencil and started sketching.
Van Gogh: Painted With Words tells the story of these early struggles and his later limited success in the artist’s own words, selected from the 902 letters written from Vincent to his brother Theo.
The siblings started their correspondence in their teens and maintained it through family fall outs, Vincent’s poverty and the mental disorder that would end his life at 37.
Narrated by Alan Yentob, the letters are voiced by actors to brilliant effect. Benedict Cumberbatch takes the role of Van Gogh and gives a great performance; it’s uncanny how alike they look. Other actors take on the roles of Van Gogh’s brother and fellow artists, every word spoken taken from the letters between them.
With such a colourful life and canvasses it would be difficult to make the story of Van Gogh’s life dull. This is a man who shamed his family by falling in love with at first his cousin, then a pregnant prostitute decades his senior. He would often be stopped by police for fondling women and following them home and is probably best known for chopping off his own ear. But the stories are really brought to life by the cast who give real character to the famous names.
He was truly mad but truly talented too. He died penniless with his paintings after numerous spells in the local asylum. Only after his death did he achieve the recognition he deserved, which is of bittersweet comfort to the rest of us. A brilliant documentary about a brilliant and troubled mind.