Leonardo review: You can imagine art history A-Level students being shown this while their teacher googles antiques

New drama starring Aidan Turner is strangely limited in scope: a straight tale of a brilliant young artist who has a few setbacks along the way, mostly to do with jealous rivals

Ed Cumming@EdCumming
Friday 16 April 2021 10:18
Leonardo trailer

The Poldark star Aidan Turner is already a Vitruvian Man to millions of middle-aged British women. So it makes sense that he swaps being topless on clifftops for a doublet and pencil to play Leonardo da Vinci, in this new Amazon series that somehow stretches to eight episodes. He’s co-produced it, too, along with his co-star Freddie Highmore, so they must believe in the idea.

And why not? There’s no reason you couldn’t make a decent drama about Leonardo da Vinci. With its high concentration of genius artists, sexy codpieces, dodgy popes and free-flowing ducats, the High Renaissance is a tempting target for prestige TV creators. The Borgias had a crack at it, but there’s still room for something with more art than Irons, and they don’t come much bigger than Leo.

Despite his eventual fame, Leonardo’s early life remains obscure. That ought to be helpful when you’re trying to spin a drama. So it’s disappointing that Leonardo sets its ambitions so low. To beef up the established facts, the opening episode tacks on a murder accusation, being investigated by a kind-of policeman (Highmore), and a love interest in the shape of an artist’s model, Caterina da Cremona (Matilda De Angelis). That aside, it is strangely limited in scope, a straight tale of a brilliant young artist who has a few setbacks along the way, mostly to do with jealous rivals.

Rather than human drama, the script is structured around works of art: Leonardo’s early sketch of Caterina, the first painting his master invites him to finish, his idea for a crane to lift a cross to the top of the Duomo. Just call him Leonardo da winchy. Nobody’s quibbling with the work, but it means the drama sometimes feels like the sort of educational film they have on loop at museums, a kind of animated Wikipedia entry, with a script that prefers not to let subtext get in the way of straight facts. You can imagine art history A-Level students being shown it at the end of term while their teacher googles antiques.

We see the young painter and his fellow apprentices studying under grizzled old Verrocchio, played by Giancarlo Giannini, best known here as Rene Mathis in the early Craig Bonds. He’s one of the few cast members prepared to give it a bit of welly. The others are strangely weedy. De Angelis was last seen putting the sexual wind up in The Undoing and is clearly One to Watch, but here she struggles to animate lines such as “you’re so selfish, you only care about your art”. Talk about a moaner Lisa.

Turner’s Leonardo is a timid emo who refuses to join in the art-school banter, burns his works at night, and says, with a straight face, “I believe nature is the greatest artwork, the only perfect act of creation”. Leonardo may be the greater genius, but Poldark would wipe the floor with this bloke. His bloodlessness spills into the rest of the production, so despite the framing device and the odd stirring bit of music we never feel there’s anything at stake. Proving that indie softbois were moping around as early as the 15th century, the young painter observes that there are “stories everywhere” in the faces of the local peasantry. That’s all well and good, but how you tell the stories matters, too.

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