Review: At Eternity’s Gate6th February 2019
The Academy Awards this year are packed to the gills with biopics of the famous faces of history. In the Best Actor category alone, four out of the five movies nominated are biopics. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but if they’re going to give out awards for impressions, then Willem Dafoe should be the man to win it.
His turn in At Eternity’s Gate, a biopic following the final years of esteemed and revered painter, Vincent Van Gogh, is some of the best work he will ever produce. Encapsulating the manic insanity of one of history’s most well remembered painters, Dafoe works with great encouragement from director Julian Schnabel.
Schnabel’s style of filming and almost random direction open up both Dafoe and the movie as a whole to improvisation at any given time, such as the extreme close-ups of Van Gogh crying, working and thinking. This presumed randomness of Schnabel’s vision manages to paint a great look into the final years of Van Gogh because of how how bizarre and risky it is all the way through. Schnabel is able to seize the greater moments this way, resulting in some of the genuinely greatest direction to come out of the 21st century.
However the shaky camera is off-putting, especially for a biopic: we’re talking Cloverfield levels of shaky camerawork right here.
The supporting cast feels both integral and absent at the same time, full of recognisable faces that, as expected, give phenomenal performances. Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric, in particular, greatly impress in their very brief scenes with Dafoe.
Of course, no matter how hard they work they’ll always be overshadowed by the volatile and superb encapsulation that Dafoe brings to the table; his ability to create tension is divine. Without a doubt his leading performance is the best part of the movie, and his ability to engage with the audience so quickly is why At Eternity’s Gate works so well, there’s no doubt about that.
It’s a shame then that At Eternity’s Gate will be all but forgotten in a few years’ time.
Willem Dafoe could cut his own ear off and still get passed up for Christian Bale, who packed on a few extra pounds to play a controversial politician. Dafoe is in a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix or Ralph Fiennes – amazing, truly masterful actors who will never see Oscar recognition, because they’re simply too versatile. But, if Dafoe ever had a chance to win, this is simply the best (and possibly final) chance he’ll get.
Overall, the film contains some excellent work and is strongly recommended for fans of Van Gogh, Dafoe and biopics that have both a unique voice and a flair to them. However, it suffers from the same problem First Reformed just managed to break through: its ingeniously random direction soon becomes the sole talking point of an otherwise well-rounded movie and a beautiful performance from Dafoe.