The fact that the re-watch got delayed and delayed is already symptomatic for what is generally the problem with re-watches: They are not new, and it never feels urgent to write a review about something that has been out there for quite a while. And in my case, that even applies to my “first time”. I remember joining the fandom by way of tumblr pretty much exactly seven years ago. I was catching up on all things Armitage at the time, discovering “new” old photo shoots, articles and series that Richard had been in before I first laid eyes on him in Spooks. And I knew for a very long time that he had played Claude Monet in The Impressionists – and never felt compelled to actually watch the show. Most of the time, when that happens, it just merely means I am deliberately delaying the moment when I am “all caught up” – it is just so delicious to look forward to yet another previously unseen performance of my favourite actor. I want to savour those moments, draw them out for as long as I can. Because once done, you can never go back to that first impression… The Impressionists, however? Somehow did not interest me. Partly because I am not a major fan of the actual style of painting. Partly because I just could not get over the horrible wig and facial hair on Richard in the pictures and screen shots of TI. I remember pronouncing my scorn very arrogantly on tumblr, only to be put right by my very wise and understanding fan sister Abby: The look may have been silly. But TI was so worth watching because this was a role in which Richard was allowed to *smile* often – and brightly. And what can I say – she was right.
So, seven years later, and the effect is still the same: TI starts off the best way possible, with Richard smiling. In episode 1 we are introduced to Claude Monet as an old man. He is working in his house and garden in Giverny. A young journalist visits him, and he tells the story of his career to the journalist in flashbacks: Monet comes to Paris as a young man, enrolling in a painting academy. He is the son of a grocer and chandler from Le Havre. At the Gleyre art school he meets and becomes friends with Auguste Rénoir and Frédéric Bazille. The three young painters quickly realise that their way of seeing – and painting – is different from what is demanded and prescribed by the Paris Salon. The salon is the taste police of the time, and only whatever passes their critical (and conventional) eye will be allowed to go on display in the salon. Since the salon is also the marketplace for art, failure to meet the taste of the salon means failure to sell. For many of the artists, Monet included, that means poverty.
Among the painters rejected by the salon, is Édouard Manet. His Déjeuner sur l’herbe really raises the hackles of the salon – and pushes the boundaries that Monet and his group also want to overcome. Together with Bazille and Rénoir, Monet becomes the proponent of “impressionism”. Seeing the world one moment a time, every painting is just an impression of that imperfectly perfect moment. Painting outdoors is an entirely new idea. Yet it is a slightly more conventional portrait of his muse (and later wife) Camille that gets Monet his first ever participation in the salon.
However, on the whole, the impressionists are still struggling with being ignored by the salon – or with their own poverty. In Monet’s case it gets even worse when his muse, Camille, gets pregnant. Monet abandons the woman because his family has threatened to cut him off if he marries her. Eventually, however, he sees the error of his ways, returns to her, and they live together as a family, with both wife and child posing for his paintings.
The romantic struggle becomes less romantic when the Franco-Prussian war breaks out in 1870, forcing Monet into exile in Britain, and killing Bazille. But eventually Monet returns, and his thirst for artistic innovation continues… (end of part 1).
Despite not liking impressionist paintings, there is no doubt that the impressionist painters were genius innovators. They revolutionised visual art, and an episodic show about their story is exciting in its own right. The BBC version of it, filmed in 2006, leaves no doubt that it is attempting to produce a visually attractive mini series. Right from the start, the show comes with bright and brilliant colours, and often the cinematography copies the impressionist originals, recreating not only the scene but also the style.
Claude Monet is quite clearly the hero of the piece. Richard plays him, and gets a large proportion of the screen time – which he unfortunately also has to share with Julian Glover who plays old age Monet. The dual Monets already hint at the way the story is told: in flashback. It’s a popular – and frankly also rather unoriginal, storytelling device. I am not keen on it, and TI was a case in point: I never understood why it was important to frame the actual story of the impressionists by the old man reminiscing to the interviewing journalist. If anything, looking at the old man looking back bored me, and I wanted to get back to the gorgeous young Monet laughing his
teeth eyes out (6.50 in the clip) or the bits where that group of happy, handsome painters was cavorting through the Paris art scene. Having said that, the show is very good at explaining the challenges and difficulties of the time. It paints a picture of Paris that is as inspiring as it is cruel – the poverty and restrictions of the time clearly depicted.
For comparison’s sake, here is the Bazille painting:
As for Richard – what a joy to see him in a role that is full of youth, joy and curiosity – qualities that I very much associate with him, even 13 years down the road from when this was filmed. And even though Richard has occasionally expressed his doubt about being cast as anyone who *isn’t* dark and pained. But the bright-eyed, happy young man sits very well on his face – even though I occasionally found his teeth a shade too white for the times. But when the young painters are sitting in the gloomy bistro, drinking to the future, is there any way you can *not* think of happy, giggling RA from the Behind the Scenes clip? I found myself breaking into laughter just because I was reminded of the bloopers, almost waiting for Richard to stammer under his breath “I can’t bear it. You twat!”
But look beyond the straggly hair and the weird beard – for instance in the cleverly cropped image above – and you see this gorgeous young thing. Maybe not entirely conventionally pretty.
There is a lot of nose there. But when he gets those eyes to sparkle with laughter, you can see that Monet was a happy man, despite the hardships he had to endure. And when Richard gives us a few extras, the fangirl hearts beat faster.
So verdict: After episode 1, my impression is the miniseries has aged well, despite the boring flashback scenario. But the story of the impressionists never gets old. Episode 1 is very good at drawing us into the atmosphere of the time – the personal obligations and challenges of the individual painters (but mainly Monet), and the artistic restrictions and conventions of the art scene in general. The set-ups are designed with care and an artistic eye, and it is a pleasure to watch the actors fill out the scenery with their enthusiastic portrayals of the men who changed the art world forever. Especially when there is some deep shadow to accentuate the best bits 😊