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Tim's Vermeer


Stars: With: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore.

Director: Teller

First – who’s Tim?

Tim Jenison is a Texas-based inventor (although I can’t pretend to understand such contributions to progress as The Video Toaster) who, having both time and money, decided to work out how 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (remember Colin Firth as the artist in Girl with the Pearl Earring?) managed to paint pictures with such uncanny photo-realism.

Jenison’s extraordinary artistic odyssey which spanned some eight years and took him to Delft in Holland where Vermeer worked, to Yorkshire to meet British artist David Hockney and to Buckingham Palace to look at a Vermeer painting in the collection of the Queen while all the time he tried to figure out the secret of Vermeer’s unique ‘realism’.

Surprisingly, what seemed prior to the screening might simply emerge as an arcane documentary dedicated to art lovers turned out to be fascinating and often funny. Jenison ‘s likeability is a major asset, allied with to-the-point direction and, especially for me, the concept that Vermeer might have achieved his graphic style by possibly using a small-scale equivalent of the camera obscura.

Which is when Tim’s Vermeer grabbed me and held me.

While I have never had the opportunity to see a real camera obscura, which projects images from the exterior on its walls, for myself (although I have seen them from outside, in Edinburgh and Santa Monica) I was hooked on them from the time I saw one on screen when I showed A Matter of Life and Death as the school projectionist while trapped in a boarding school in Kenya.

Powell and Pressburger’s use of the camera obscura in their classic takes hold of me every time I see their film. Similarly, as soon as Jenison posited a much smaller long-ago version of the device, director Teller had me.

You don’t have to like Vermeer or, for that matter, A Matter of Life and Death to enjoy the film. But it helps.

And who would have figured that Teller of the seriously weird illusionist team of Penn (aka Penn Jilllette) would make so fascinating a film?

And Jenison’s own verdict on his unlikely accomplishment?

Looking at his finished mock-Vermeer painting after five years, he states happily, “Not bad for a first oil painting.

Alan Frank

USA 2013. UK Distributor: Sony. Colour.
80 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 17 Jan 2014