E1 Entertainment // 2007 // 134 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // September 26th, 2009
After a decade of mixed-media projects and opera direction, Peter Greenaway returns to the world of cinema with a renewed energy in Nightwatching, his best film since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The first in a proposed series of films about artists (go figure), this detailed analysis of Rembrandt's famous painting, The Night Watch, is significantly more interesting than it might sound.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Martin Freeman, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) has become the most celebrated painter ever to come from Amsterdam. His life has hit its apex with the announcement of the pregnancy of his wife Saskia, (Eva Birthistle, Breakfast on Pluto) and the offer of an extremely large commission from the city militia to paint their portrait, a tradition amongst their ranks for many years. The lack of freedom makes the artist wary, but he agrees at the urging of his wife for the money. Sure enough, the nasty politics that rule the lives of these fake soldiers get the better of them. What starts as a nightmare for Rembrandt becomes delicious revenge as a murder in the ranks gives him the chance to paint accusations into his art, immortalizing these men as the scum he felt they were.
Paintings, paintings, and more paintings. Throughout Peter Greenaway's career, painters and their art have a preeminent thematic role, used not only for set decoration and the look of his films, but also for dramatic purposes. Whether the subplot of the live Vermeer pastiches in A Zed and Two Noughts or the main character and dramatic thrust of The Draughtsman's Contract, painting is somewhere in virtually all of his films. In Nightwatching, he takes the concept even farther by making painting the plot. Ordinarily, watching somebody paint isn't the best way to spend two hours, so it seems at first like a strange thing to make a film about. Greenaway has never cared much for traditional plotting, however, and we're safe in his hands. The story is more than dramatic enough to carry the film, and it's such a beautiful piece of art in itself that it may not have mattered anyway.
Nightwatching works two ways: as a biopic of Rembrandt and as a veiled art history lesson. The life story acclimates us to the time period and the personalities of Rembrandt, Saskia, and the characters who will so inhabit the painting. Rembrandt is presented as something of a family man; somebody who, outside of his art, cares only about his wife and coming child. The militia members are ancillary to Rembrandt's life, but integral to the story. Aside from the family story that takes much of the film, we learn little bits about the fake soldiers and their families. They backstab each other, ostracize members getting in the way, and much worse. These tidbits become more important as the film progresses, taking shape as the true thrust of the film.
Within all these subplots, Greenaway presents us with many of the little details that have made The Night Watch such a fantastic and long-studied painting. Accompanying the film is a second disc, presented as an extra feature, that contains Greenaway's feature-length documentary, J'Accuse, a full analysis of more than thirty of the mysteries within the painting, one for each character in the piece. Greenaway is as much a master of the documentary as he is of fiction, especially in the way he can enliven his subject matter, which tends toward the arcane and obscure. Likewise for J'Accuse, this is the best art history lesson I've ever had, showing me more in a more engaging way than any class I've attended. What's really incredible is how he can so seamlessly weave these so-called mysteries into the plot of Nightwatching, giving his audience an almost subliminal art lesson and a juicy murder mystery at the same time. The painting serves as a template for the script. They work so well together that it's hard to tell whether the feature or the documentary is the primary film. It works both ways, either one in support of the other.
Greenaway keeps this painting theme alive in the look of the film, as well. This isn't new to the director but, like many of his films, the set design, lighting, and performances in many of the scenes in Nightwatching resemble paintings in themselves. This is as stagy a film as Greenaway has made in some time, and the minimal camera movement certainly allows us time to drink in the beauty of these images. But this isn't the long, moving fresco he created in Prospero's Books; these paintings, like those of his subject, mimic the portraiture popular in Amsterdam during Rembrandt's time. The sparsely dressed sets are lit from odd, multiple angles and the actors inhabiting them barely move at all. The scenes are still and quiet, but they are deliberately (maybe obsessively) put together to appear as portraits, but in cinematic form.
The performances are equally stagey, going so far at times as to break the wall and speak to the audience directly. These scenes are mostly used to explain larger passings of time and, while jarring at first, are useful in conveying information that would have dragged down the film. Freeman does well as Rembrandt. He is portrayed as kindly as opposed to his grimy subjects, but still blusters and flails about his artistic demands. Freeman does fine, embodying the loving, but absent, husband and father as well as he does the bloviating, obsessive, somewhat crazy artist. Additionally, Natalie Press (Chromophobia), an adult actress, deserves mention for her performance of Marieke, a preteen girl at the center of the darkest subplot in the film. She plays the girl at once as sweet, scared, and crazy with courage and believability.
E1's DVD for Nightwatching is very fine all around. The film alternates from very dark to quite bright and it is strong in both. The picture is crisp and clear throughout. Though this isn't a colorful film, it does convey the soft hues of the artistically minded scenes, rendering them full of beautiful detail. The image is, overall, very good. The surround mix for the film is not terribly dynamic, a fact reflected in the DVD mix. While the dialog is always strong, music and ambient sound are more difficult to discern. Greenaway is never one for a bombastic score or crazy sound effects, but this mix is still very light. The stereo track is nominally worse, but still clear. The extra features are excellent. Aside from the previously mentioned J'Accuse documentary as the second disc, the remainder of the first contains an hour of interviews with Greenaway and members of the cast, which are universally excellent. This may not be the most heavily-stocked disc, but with the documentary included as a second disc (don't buy the cheaper single disc edition, which is only the feature), this is a high quality release.
After years of loving Peter Greenaway's art, both in film and elsewhere, it seems I had lost perspective on exactly why that is; those reasons just blurred out of perspective and his work just became a part of me and I accepted that. With a film as spectacular as Nightwatching, his best in many years, the reminder of how powerful a director can be is very nice. I don't know if this film will bring any new converts into Greenaway's world, but those already taken with him will find his best work in some time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated