Leonardo: Aidan Turner has great stubble, but don’t expect Bridgerton-with-brushes

The canvas cracks a bit when the Irish actor is called on to channel Leonardo da Vinci’s virtuosity

Aidan Turner in Leonardo: enjoyable, though lacking the jolts of genius that crackled through Leonardo da Vinci’s artistry

Aidan Turner in Leonardo: enjoyable, though lacking the jolts of genius that crackled through Leonardo da Vinci’s artistry

 

Aidan Turner has real star power, but he seems slightly lost taking on the mantle of artist, early helicopter enthusiast and literal Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo (Amazon Prime) is a sumptuous costume drama that re-creates 1400s Florence with what is surely a considerable CGI budget. It lacks a clear perspective on Leonardo da Vinci, however – was he a genius? A lost soul? An outsider with amazing stubble? – and leaves the Irish actor to flounder somewhat.

It’s oddly paced, too. The series begins with a bang as Leonardo is arrested for killing his assistant and lifelong friend Caterina da Cremona (The Undoing’s Matilda De Angelis). Did he do it? Flashbacks appear to suggest that indeed he did. But why?

There is little point rifling through a history book for spoilers, as almost nothing is known of Caterina. Even her existence is a point of contention. Leonardo’s producers have insisted she was real and a major figure in his life (even if the depiction of her as Leonardo’s muse is a creation of Steve Thompson, the writer of this show and of some of Sherlock).

Yet the art critic Jonathan Jones has dismissed these claims. “Caterina is a figment, a fantasy, a complete piece of tosh, invented by a 19th-century Romantic and for some reason given highly unconvincing credence by one modern biographer.”

Historical quibbles aside, Leonardo is enjoyable, though lacking the jolts of genius that crackled through Leonardo da Vinci’s artistry. Rolling back the years from his arrest, the first two episodes are a portrait of the artist as an angry young man; it’s disappointing not to see him cracking on straight away with the Mona Lisa or sketching his groundbreaking design for a helicopter.

It’s in Florence that he intersects with Caterina, a painter’s model with scars along her back that intrigue Leonardo. (How did she acquire them and why does she want to cover them up?)

This isn’t Bridgerton-with-brushes, however, and there is no romantic spark between the two. (A tryst with a male prostitute hints that Leonardo’s inclinations lie elsewhere.) He is, though, obsessed with painting Caterina as only he can see her. This folds into the show’s thesis that Leonardo’s revolutionary talent was for portraiture that revealed the inner self.

In addition to furnishing us with the Leonardo origin story we didn’t know we wanted, the series carries echoes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, in which Tom Hulce’s Mozart is tormented by demons from his early life. Leonardo is similarly haunted by his childhood and the father who rejected him.

These scenes bring out the best in Turner, who, as Poldark fans will know, is adept at looking brooding and angst-ridden. It’s when he is called on to pick up his brush and channel Leonardo’s virtuosity that the canvas cracks a bit. Leonardo is solid prestige television – but no masterpiece.

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