Sunday, 4 March 2012
Nightwatching (2008) dir. Peter Greenaway
Starring: Martin Freeman, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle
By Alan Bacchus
Enjoyment of Nightwatching will depend largely on your ability to stomach the tedium of Peter Greenaway – that intensely idiosyncratic British director known for lavish, overly theatrical and often debaucherous art films – the British version of late-career Fellini. Greenaway's latest tells the story of Rembrandt in the golden age of the Dutch empire and his journey to painting his most famous work, Nightwatch.
Like Guido in Fellini’s 8½, the film establishes Rembrandt, already a revered painter, as highly coveted by everyone to commission his next work. He chooses an offer from the Amsterdam Civil Guard, depicting the militia in a group portrait, only to get embroiled in a murder mystery that exposes the political crookedness of the group.
All the hallmarks of the Greenaway style are here, including impeccably composed classical frames heavily populated with lavishly costumed characters and extravagantly decorated production design. While visually stunning, like most of his work, it's a difficult film to penetrate. Lengthy, wordy dialogue sessions play out the complex conspiracies and historical analysis of the great painter and his work. There’s obviously great intelligence and deep character and artistic examination going on, almost all of which, admittedly, went way over my head.
For me, the only watchable element from these doubting eyes is Martin Freeman’s witty performance. Freeman, known for his affectionate Tim character in the original British version of The Office, inhabits Rembrandt’s skin admirably, giving us a highly accessible entry into what probably could have been a stodgy old theatrical character, much like the working class affability of Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus.
As usual, the visual palette includes large expansive and sometimes near-empty sets, theatrical in look, feel and sound. Often the characters talk directly to the audience like a Shakepearean soliloquy, the same feeling we got from the staginess of Lars von Trier’s Grace trilogy. There’s even a distinct stage echo in the sound design, which reverberates the actors’ dialogue.
Thus, Nightwatching ultimately becomes a highly esoteric affair – either for history or art scholars, or Greenaway junkies. For me it was a tough struggle, and I disappointed myself when I couldn’t really hold my attention to the film's complexities. Oh well, I never was a Greenaway fan, and this confirms I never will be. To each his own.
Nightwatching is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films.