Leonardo, the hunky male Meghan? Why TV never gets the great artists right

Aidan Turner's Leonardo 'paints his truth' and flaunts his good looks - Amazon
Aidan Turner's Leonardo 'paints his truth' and flaunts his good looks - Amazon

“A man like Leonardo…” – says a dark-browed Italian – “…his genius is forged by pain, and that pain can drive a man to commit terrible acts.” Cliché klaxon! Here comes a tortured maestro!

Leonardo, Amazon Prime’s new mini-series, is a load of old Renaissance hooey. If you thought the Bridgerton scripts were bad – leaden, laboured, obvious – wait till you hear Aidan Turner’s Leonardo da Vinci, channelling the Duchess of Sussex as he proclaims: “I paint my truth.” It’s perfectly watchable TV, but how did they make such an infinitely interesting man so dull? This isn’t a moan about historical accuracy; drama needn’t be documentary. But the fictionalised life of an artist should at least feel real.

And yet, Leonardo is far from the first film or TV series to turn a grand old master into a badly-done daub. For every Timothy Spall as JMW Turner, there’s a Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais in Effie Gray (2014), wibbling on about “light, light, light” while shin-deep in a loch. The Pre-Raphaelites have suffered more than most. The BBC’s Desperate Romantics (2009) was a spirited if silly romp, billed as “Entourage with Easels” or “the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood meets Desperate Housewives”.

Aidan Turner (again) played Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rafe Spall was William Holman Hunt, and Samuel Barnett was the wet and weedy Millais. The trailer featured the three brothers-in-art walking in slow-mo through a gallery of exploding paintings, backed by David Bowie’s Heroes. “The men,” intoned a narrator, “who blew apart the art world”. As I remember it, they became the men who never stopped squabbling, snogging or being slapped by their models.

The BBC’s next artistic venture, Life in Squares (2015), was the Bloomsbury Group meets… what? The OC? Skins? Grey’s Anatomy? It could have been any series in which beautiful, intense people live beautifully and intensely and fall in love intensely and beautifully – and a bit sadly, too. Phoebe Fox was a brilliant Vanessa Bell, Lydia Leonard was Virginia Woolf and James Norton a suitably dishy Duncan Grant. The whole thing was like a Toast catalogue: lovely to look at, handsomely acted, but dull as paint rags.

Alfred Molina and Salma Hayek as Rivera and Kahlo in Frida
Alfred Molina and Salma Hayek as Rivera and Kahlo in Frida

When it comes to artistic insight, the big screen hasn’t fared much better. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) gave us more than two hours of Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II and Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, shouting in the Sistine Chapel. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards: Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Score and Sound. (It lost to Doctor Zhivago in the first four categories and to The Sound of Music in the fifth.) But Rex Harrison, who had won the Best Actor Oscar the previous year for Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, wasn’t even nominated himself, nor was Heston. In terms of acting, it was regarded as a monumental flop.

Contrast Pollock in 2000, for which Ed Harris earned a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Jackson Pollock. He lost to Russell Crowe, as General Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator, but Harris, explosive and persuasive as Pollock, could consider himself robbed. At least Marcia Gay Harden won the Best Supporting Actress award for Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and a powerful Abstract Expressionist painter herself. Harris was a Pollock obsessive, who also directed the film and created painting scenes that are ingenious choreographed: frantic, delirious and deliberate. Compare archive clips of Pollock in action with Harris’s foot-and-brushwork, and you see that it’s a remarkable recreation.

It’s one thing to make a success of a straightforward biopic, another to capture the aesthetic excitement of an artist’s work. I was 15 when Frida (2002), starring Salma Hayek, came out; I remember renting the film from the video shop and feeling stunned by the colour, emotion and energy of it all. The uncanny Day-of-the-Dead puppet sequence devised by the Quay Brothers, and Kahlo’s paintings,which sprang to life with the help of stop-motion animation, were a clever way of making a film that was not only about an artist, but visually like her work.

Hayek was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, but like Harris, she lost. Alfred Molina was also excellent as Diego Rivera, but was entirely overlooked. There may be a lesson here: if you want to win an Oscar, steer clear of artists’ smocks. Timothy Spall was also snubbed despite his symphony of sniffs, grunts and contemptuous moues in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014), a performance so convincingly single-minded and disobliging.

Back then, I interviewed Tim Wright, the artist who had taught Spall to paint. He said that what Spall was after was “not an impression of Turner, but an expression of Turner”. On set, Wright added, Spall was taken by the idea that Turner had used his fingernail to score wet paint, so the actor grew one fingernail longer for the role. Artistic technique needn’t be perfect, but it ought, Spall knew, to convince.

Kirk Douglas made for an intense Van Gogh in 1956's Lust for Life - Alamy
Kirk Douglas made for an intense Van Gogh in 1956's Lust for Life - Alamy

The challenge for actors and directors is that interiority and inspiration are tricky to convey on screen. Less “eureka” moments, more daily grind. Last year I met an artist, now in his nineties, who said he painted every day. He was terrified that if he ever missed a morning, he might wake up and find that he’d lost “it”.

Sure, there are rakes, and roués, and exceptions to the rule, but, by and large, artists unlock the studio, prime the canvas and do an honest day’s creative work – and they do this day after day after day. (In a very funny Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor, Matt Smith’s Doctor thrashed impatiently around an Arles churchyard as Vincent van Gogh, played by Tony Curran – sweeter and more vulnerable than Kirk Douglas’s stormy 1956 portrayal in Lust for Life – painted “really slowly”.)

Artists are like anyone else, and there’s no rubric for playing one on screen. Faithful or fanciful, slantwise or sincere, they’re human beings first and art superstars later. That’s the trouble with Amazon’s Leonardo: he’s a flat cartoon of The Greatest Artist, rather than a flawed and heartfelt figure who’s been sculpted fully in the round.

Leonardo is on Amazon Prime now

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