Review: Nightwatching

Nightwatching One Sheet

Director: Peter Greenaway (81/2 Women, The Pillow Book, The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover)
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Starring: Martin Freeman, Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle, Toby Jones, Jodhi May
MPAA Rating: NA
Running time: 134 min.

One often hears the argument that art is subjective and to an extent, it is and though the style and sometimes even the message can be subjective and change from individual to individual occasionally, a work of art tells a true story. In the case of some art which remains unappreciated for decades if not centuries after its creator has died, the message may only be perceived but for the few that find fame during their lifetime, the message can cause quite the stir. It’s one of these artworks, namely Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”, which is at the centre of Peter Greenaway’s new film.

Nightwatching Movie StillNightwatching is a combination of things: the biopic of an artist, a study of a period and the story behind a great work of art. In Greenaway’s style, the film combines a number of threads to tell it’s story. In part, it is an interesting look at the artist as a man. Greenaway portrays Rembrandt as a loving father, husband and friend; a man who had a passion for creation but also for life. Rembrandt’s life seems to be going along at a steady pace until he is pressured (by his dying wife no less) to take on a commission to paint a military company. The commission or more accurately, the story of the people depicted in the painting, seems to consume his life and when it is finally complete it seems to take a piece of Rembrandt with it leaving a hollow shell of the man.

As is typical of the few films I’ve seen of Greenaway’s, the director’s own creation is a work of art in and of itself. Each scene is carefully constructed and the camera moves around the action in a careful yet determined fashion. As with a painting, each scene is deeper than the action and there always seems to be something hiding in the shadows or around the corner and the film’s languid pacing allows the viewer to take in the details. The ruffled pages scattered on the bed, the subtle shift in lighting from moment to moment and the performances from a large and varied cast.

Nightwatching Movie StillAt times, the film feels more like a stage play than a film; the limited set design suggests that, as do some of the scene transitions which happen in front of the camera. It also comes through in a few of the performances, mostly from the supporting cast, which often feel overblown as if the actors have been told to emote to the back of the theatre. It’s particularly apparent with the young women with whom Rembrandt talks on the rooftop and occasionally, the same feeling is apparent from the painting’s stand-ins who seem to be yelling rather than reciting lines. Thankfully, the problem doesn’t extend to the lead performers who beautifully capture and bring the individuals to life.

At the helm is Martin Freeman, an actor mostly remembered for his comedic performances, as Rembrandt. Freeman brings a warmth and depth to the character that I hadn’t expected from a Greenaway film (there’s usually a feeling of remove in the director’s work) and equally captivating is Eva Birthistle as Rembrandt’s wife Saskia. Though her character exists the film partway through, her performance carries her through to the end and as the final scenes unfold, one can’t help but remember her and what she might say to a devastated Rembrandt. My only complaint about the casting is the poor use of the great Toby Jones whose talent is mostly wasted in one liners and is generally lost in the bustle of the rest of the cast.

Nightwatching Movie StillNightwatching is a beautifully composed and expertly shot story of obsession which also provides an interesting look at what hides behind the images on the canvas. My single biggest complaint is that the film loses steam in the last thirty minutes and though one of the film’s best scenes unfolds in the last few minutes, the lead up to it feels vacant and is simply a rehashing of material and themes which have already come up throughout.

Nightwatching is not the best of Greenaway’s work but it is an interesting and unconventional approach at the biopic via a specific work of art. It’s not a film that everyone will appreciate, the pacing is often deliberately slow, but those familiar with Greenaway’s work will revel the director’s return (as this is the first film to see any sort of theatrical distribution in nearly ten years).

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Ken Lampton

In my opinion the world needs more movies about the 17th century. And it wouldn't hurt to have more movies that are intellectual rather than sensational. Therefore, I am delighted to find Nightwatching on the shelf at Premiere Video in my M-Street neighborhood in Dallas, Texas.

Nightwatching is a visual delight. The sets, the costumes, the way the scenes are lighted in the manner of Rembrandt's own paintings, all these elements of this movie were delightful to me. And Martin Freeman's acting made Rembrandt's character leap right off the screen into my heart.

Although this is not a film that could ever be a commercial success, I thank Peter Greenaway and his collaborators from the bottom of my heart for making it. I will view it again the next time my eyes want to be happy.