The Impressionists (2006)

TV miniseries: The Impressionists (2006), directed by Tim Dunn

Everyone will have heard of names like Monet, Renoir, Degas, Manet and Cézanne, even if you’re not a great lover of art. In fact, you’re probably picturing the waterlilies in Monet’s garden already. Do you know who any of them actually were, aside from a random name of a painter?

The Impressionists is a biopic of the Impressionist movement and its participants in 19th Century France. Not only were the aforementioned names all painters – they all knew each other as friends. This three-part drama depicts their struggles as painters who didn’t want to do the traditional thing, they wanted to make paintings more natural – and that didn’t give them many favours among the art critics of Paris.

As Claude Monet is generally considered to be the father of the Impressionist movement, the story follows him, and is told by him. A reporter is interviewing the aged Monet (Julian Glover) at the artist’s house, and he tells us how it all began, when he was a young man …

Young Monet (Richard Armitage) was in art class with Renoir (Charlie Condou) and Bazille (James Lance), but they wanted to do their own thing – paint outdoors (unheard of!) and paint things as they actually were, so that if a subject has big feet, they are big on the canvas too, even if that means the feet aren’t beautiful. Revolutionary ideas for their time, and their time wasn’t quite ready for artists to take such incredible liberties.

We meet Camille (Isobel Pravda), who becomes Monet’s wife, and how they struggle to get by on very little. We’re also introduced to the ambitious Manet (Andrew Havill) and his friend Degas (Aden Gillett), as well as the eccentric social misfit Cézanne (Will Keen). We also see Amanda Root (Persuasion ’95) as Alice Hoschedé, Crispin Bonham-Carter (Pride and Prejudice ’95) as art dealer Ambroise Vollard and Anthony Calf as author Emile Zola.

It would be unfair to say that The Impressionists has made me more interested in art, but I have to admit, I will probably pay a bit more attention if I see their work now that they’re not just abstract names from history. Now I know a bit more about them, and that’s generally the aim of a good documentary – to inform and educate. Job done!

The only times I was reminded of the documentary nature of what would otherwise just be a biographical period drama, is whenever they showed paintings, because they show the finished pieces as they are as full-screen stills, with the title of the painting, the artist and the year it was completed. Other than that, it was just a good drama series, but I think in order to appreciate it, you need to be a fan of one of the actors or painters, or be interested in art in general, because if you’re not, it might be a little on the dull side, unless you’re into costume dramas.

Is it peculiar how a bunch of French artists are portrayed by Brits? Not really. They don’t walk around with silly accents, like in ‘Allo ‘Allo; they just go about their business normally, which means we can take it seriously … and doesn’t give rise to any urges to quote, “Listen keer-fulli, I shall say zhis unly wunce” and crack jokes about madonnas “wiz zhe big boobies”.

My personal favourite of this production is young Claude Monet, but not only because of the passionate and heartwarming portrayal of him by Richard Armitage, but because of his ideals. He’s got the guts to do the right thing, his own thing, even if it’s not the established order of the day. He goes against the grain in order to be true to himself and what he loves, and that’s admirable regardless of the year.

Even if you do have a squirrel beard …

Overall, a solid and very enjoyable production. 4 out of 5 easels.

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