A densely layered experience
such as Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching challenges a critic's
ability to rearrange something that has been especially sculpted for
cinematic presentation. Translating film content into prose is
often easy; at least, a summary description is usually accessible to
one used to working with words. But Greenaway has fashioned a
film that unites so many ideas and textures - many of which are utterly
foreign to mainstream filmmaking - that it is difficult to arrive
at a fair representation of them for the purposes of a review.
But, let me step back and describe
the general premise. Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) receives
a commission from a local Amsterdam militia to paint their group portrait.
In the midst of personal turmoil - including the death of his wife
Saskia (Eva Birthistle) after the birth of his son Titus - Rembrandt
reluctantly completes the painting known as The Night Watch,
but not before uncovering a conspiracy among the militia that has resulted
in the assassination of one of their members, Piers Hasselburg.
The painting is ultimately executed as an investigation of the murder
and an indictment of the militiamen themselves.
Greenaway has apparently developed
this conspiracy theory on his own; it is further explored in the documentary
feature Rembrandt's J'Accuse (see The Extras below).
The plot of Nightwatching, while many-layered and giving important
weight to Rembrandt's relationships with his wife and servants Geertje
Dircx (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje Stoffels (Emily Holmes), mainly revolves
around the gestation of the painting and Greenaway's many-tentacled
However, the conspiracy is
not used to generate tension and narrative suspense - it's mainly
utilized as a way into Rembrandt's thinking, and part of what makes
Nightwatching special is this vigorous engagement with an artist's
creative process. The conspiracy makes a viable - and plausible
- structure upon which to make assumptions about the why, where, and
how questions around The Night Watch (certainly a mysterious
painting, comparable to Velazquez' Las Meninas in its elusive
As opposed to a stark psychological
portrait of the artist as a troubled soul, Rembrandt is portrayed as
a man who enjoys a lusty, fulfilling life, surrounded by people who
share in his passions. Freeman's performance is robust and committed,
exhibiting talent that goes beyond the impeccable comic timing he displayed
on The Office and elsewhere. Greenaway and Freeman's
Rembrandt is a man driven by a sense of charity and justice, and is
opposed to hypocrisy. A truth-teller and storyteller, Rembrandt
avoids romanticizing his subjects and ridicules artists who do.
He is even offended by the militia's commission - and one surmises
that commissions offend him in principle alone. A requested portrait
conflicts with the notion of expression. Why would one paint a
subject about whom the artist knows or cares little? I can imagine
no challenge greater to an artist than attempting to cultivate empathy
for an unknown subject. However, when Rembrandt sniffs out corruption
among the militia's members - particularly the abuses of Kemp, whose
orphanage doubles as a brothel - the artist snaps to attention and
seizes the opportunity to immortalize the notorious squad.
In keeping with the dramatic
nature of The Night Watch, Greenaway has adopted a theatrical
visual style. The large, spare sets are lit in a way that suggests
an elaborate stage production; this was no doubt inspired by Rembrandt's
own theatrics - the bright glowing faces peering out of an immense
darkness. It is yet another layer of interest in Greenaway's
complex vision. Also somewhat play-like are sequences in which
characters - usually Rembrandt - speak directly to the camera.
Generally, the director allows his film to play out in a leisurely fashion,
through graceful camera movements, through scenes of clever dialogue
that combine great wit with well-paced exposition, and through somewhat
essayistic monologues by characters who analyze the great painting from
an art-historical point of view.
Nightwatching is presented
in an anamorphic transfer at approximately 2.35:1. The transfer
is adequate, but not spectacular. It's unfortunate that a film
made so recently has such poor black levels. This flaw in the
transfer - light blacks - is especially irritating because Greenaway
was clearly attempting to recreate something of Rembrandt's use of
light. Like much of the artist's work, The Night Watch
features an extremely deep black background. The outstanding photography
by Reiner van Brummelen boasts lovely compositions and a carefully-crafted
lighting scheme. This transfer, which makes the blacks look quite
gray, does not do the film's visuals justice.
5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo
tracks are provided. The surround track is unusually active, with
almost constant ambient effects. The activities of Rembrandt's
servants or the weather outside are examples of elements always present
on the soundtrack. While there are no aural fireworks here, the
enveloping sound design adds another level of engagement to the film.
The stirring, moving score by Włodek Pawlik is well worth seeking out
on its own, although I cannot determine its availability on CD or otherwise.
On Disc One, the only
bonus feature is a set of interviews with Greenaway and his cast,
lasting just under one hour. There are many illuminating remarks
here, and the interviews make a worthy substitute for behind-the-scenes
On Disc Two is Greenaway's
indispensible companion film to Nightwatching, an art history
documentary essay on The Night Watch called Rembrandt's
J'Accuse. This is one of the best documentaries I have seen
on a fine arts subject. Over the course of this 100-minute film,
Greenaway himself (as both filmmaker and narrator) elucidates his theory
that Rembrandt intended The Night Watch to reveal the treachery
of Hasselburg's killers by examining 34 "mysteries" associated
with the painting. Starting off with the assertion that contemporary
society has an "impoverished" visual literacy, Greenaway proceeds
to teach viewers to "read" The Night Watch as one would a
text. In the course of reviewing the 34 mysteries - each of
which comprises some facet of the painting, such as its setting or the
individuals represented in it - the director performs an even more
generous and valuable service by refreshing the way we look at art.
In my experience, museum visitors spend more time reading the text panels
adjacent to a painting or artifact than they do looking at the object
itself. Greenaway reminds us that there is far more to observe
in a work than any text can adequately summarize.
This leads me back to the point
I was trying to make in my opening paragraph. Impossible to encapsulate,
these two films operate on many levels simultaneously; for that reason
and others, I look forward to seeing them again. Taken together,
Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse represent a singular
vision and a deep engagement with the many prisms through which art
may be observed. Greenaway's creation is an odd, rare thing.
He has pulled apart and reassembled a great work of art - and in doing
so, has made another.