Actors in highly visible, highly stylized roles get typecast quickly and never escape their most famous roles. But that's not for lack of trying. Leonard Nimoy will never be anything other than Spock to most of the world but in 1981 he wrote, directed and starred in a one man stage play about painter Vincent Van Gogh. Playing Vincent's brother Theo, Nimoy read the artist's letters and expressed the undying admiration of one brother for another (also famously explored in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo. Thanfully this performance was captured on video and is now out on DVD along with a couple of interesting special features.
Nimoy, fresh from the first Star Trek feature film, was clearly moved by Vincent's story. Starting out as a preacher in a coal mine, Vincent was never one to follow a predictable path. His passion and love of life caused him to appear mad to others and his obsessive relationships created distance with many members of his family. But Theo, through Nimoy's interpretation, never lost his sympathy and interest. A successful art dealer, Theo sent Vincent funds throughout his life and offered support and advice. Nimoy uses his strong baritone and angular face to sound both authoritative and concerned at the same time. He often sounds exasperated at Vincent's flights but, surrounded by a simple stage, he turns back to caring for his brother every time.
The beauty of the staging is that it consists only of a couple of tables and chairs, an easel with some brushes, and a couple of large projection screens. The screens constantly cycle through historical images that illustrate Theo's words, but most importantly they are filled with Vincent's paintings, often relating directly to what Nimoy is saying. This simple, elegant staging takes the otherwise period-appropriate staging and injects it with a metaphorical quality, like we are able to see inside Vincent's thoughts as well as hear them read.
Nimoy's commitment to the material and to the role is impressive. He beautifully communicates Theo's frustration with Vincent's difficulties and lack of success. He predicts that Vincent's work will reach global acclaim after his death (an easy prediction to make in retrospect, but one that I have no doubt Theo made at the time.) Since Nimoy structured the play as the eulogy Theo was unable to deliver at Vincent's modest funeral, he is able to cover a wide range of emotions, from elated joy to utter grief and despair. But through his powerful performance comes a deep admiration for a misunderstood genius.
Structurally speaking the only error in the film is a strange epilogue which covers aspects to the Van Goghs' story not covered in the play. It feels more like a documentary special feature and breaks the spell cast by the play. But that minor quibble aside Vincent is a soulful production that will hopefully find a new audience on DVD.
The full-frame video is reasonably good, although it certain suffers from the lack of resolution of early 80s video stock.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is good. Nimoy's powerful voice is clear and the minimal musical accompaniment sounds fine.
There are two special features. The first allows the audience to watch the entire play with only the projected slides for visuals. This is a good idea since the main presentation features many camera angles and often excludes the slides. It's a thoughtful addition to the disc.
The other is a commentary track from Nimoy. It's not the most lively commentary I've ever heard but he does discuss the process of creating the play and the lengthy tour where he took it all around the country. The sound is a little murky but Nimoy's passion for the material comes through.
The booklet also contains some written information on Van Gogh.
Vincent is one of those nice little surprises that appears on DVD, a production that you might have never even heard of but that delivers a powerful, rewarding viewing experience. Van Gogh's paintings are extraordinarily beautiful and haunting and, by offering a glimpse into the story behind their creation, Nimoy gives his audience a chance to appreciate them in more depth.