This film, about Vincent van Gogh and his art-gallery manager brother, could easily have been one of those painfully earnest biographies of great men. Fortunately, the director is Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Three Women and TV's Tanner '88), and he doesn't go in for earnest. He prefers bold, innovative and provocative. That applies to his successes as well as his misfires (Beyond Therapy, Quintet and Popeye). This time, the risks pay off.
The film opens with a recent British auction of a van Gogh painting for millions, then moves back to nineteenth-century Holland and France, where Theo must strain to support his older brother, who sold only one painting in his lifetime. That may seem easily ironic, but Altman makes it the heart of the matter: how an artist manages to practice his craft in a world that doesn't share his vision.
The film, with a discerning script by Julian Mitchell (Another Country), approaches the interdependence of the brothers with compassion and great humor. British actor Tim Roth (The Hit) is overwhelming as Vincent. Grinding his rotten teeth and squinting at his paint in the sunlight, he looks nothing like the towering genius Kirk Douglas portrayed in Lust for Life, in 1956. Roth's Vincent is a stinking, whining, childlike burden, capable of tenderness but most often on the rampage. As Theo, Paul Rhys (Little Dorrit) makes us see the emotional toll Vincent takes on his brother's life as well as the intensity of Theo's devotion, which allowed Vincent to get away with it. These are stupendous performances – funny, sorrowful and moving. No one says much about Vincent's paintings – though the fields, flowers and skies that inspired them are vividly shot by Jean Lepine. The film's canvas is the psychological lives of these tormented brothers, not their reputations. The result is an Altman masterpiece.