Saturday, April 03, 2010

Review - Nightwatching

According to Peter Greenaway, cinema is dead. Before we watched his latest film, the director stood on stage to lecture us on the essential worthlessness of what we were about to do. In the filmmaker's opinion, the art of cinema died in 1983 – that is, if you consider it an art form at all. Greenaway believes that cinema, in its 115-year history, has never realised its true potential because films are too reliant on the written word, and what we have been watching over the years is nothing more than illustrated text. "Let's put cinema in its coffin," Greenaway stated in summation, which is rather a peculiar way of introducing your latest piece of work to an audience.

In that light, what are we to make of Nightwatching? After delivering an introduction that decries cinema's lack of visual ambition and its reliance on literature and traditional narrative structures, you might expect the auteur to hit us with something completely revolutionary in its form and filmic daring. Nightwatching is emphatically not that film. Instead, Greenaway has made a picture that stands as one of the most conventional and accessible of his career, adhering to the familiar tropes of a medium that the director clearly believes is beneath him. You could even describe it as an avant-garde take on The Da Vinci Code, with Greenaway peering at Rembrandt's famous Night Watch, like a highbrow Dan Brown, and sniffing out a conspiracy. For fear of overselling it, Nightwatching isn't exactly cut from the same mould as Ron Howard's crowd-pleaser, but this blend of speculative/revisionist history and theatrical formalism is still Greenaway's best film in many, many years.

In Nightwatching, Rembrandt is played by Martin Freeman who – once you've got past the initial weirdness of watching Martin Freeman play Rembrandt – actually does a sterling job, throwing himself into the role with admirable gusto. He plays the artist as a lusty, energetic and forthright character, who reluctantly accepts a commission to paint a group portrait of the Amsterdam Militia when his wife (Eva Birthistle) falls pregnant. It seems like a straightforward assignment for the painter, but as he is preparing his work, the man who commissioned the painting is shot dead in what looks like a politically motivated murder, and Rembrandt turns detective. In Greenaway's hypothesis, Night Watch is Rembrandt's J'accuse, in which he points the finger of suspicion at those members of the Dutch bourgeoisie whom he believes were behind the conspiracy.

The film works largely because Greenaway's assertions make a certain amount of sense. His well-researched screenplay ties together the figures in the painting with a plot that holds together, and allows the director to suggest that Rembrandt's death in poverty was down to the revenge enacted upon him by those he accused in the painting. He zeroes in on details in the picture and extrapolates from them characters and subplots, such as the girl in the yellow dress who becomes Marieke (Natalie Press), an orphan abused by one of the subjects indicted by the painting. Press is one of the few recognisable members of the supporting cast who actually gets a substantial role to play with; others who are less fortunate include Jodhi May as a nursemaid and the bafflingly underused Toby Jones, who spends a lot of time milling about in the background to little effect. The rest of the large ensemble consists of little-known performers, and while the acting is all perfectly competent, it's often hard to keep track of who the key players are in this complex drama.

It's hard to not be impressed by the manner in which Greenaway orchestrates the action, however. Setting most of the film on minimally decorated stages gives him the freedom to utilise some striking artificial lighting techniques that mirror Rembrandt's own work, and he is a master at handling long sequences in which a flurry of action is occurring with a large amount of characters. I also loved the scenes that asked Rembrandt to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience about the women he loved; Freeman's down-to-earth charm is particularly effective here, even if he doesn't quite have the gravitas required for some of the artist's more tortured moments later on. Another key facet of the film is Wlodzimierz Pawlik's superb score, which reminded me a little of Michael Nyman's memorable contribution to The Draughtsman's Contract, an earlier Greenaway work that Nightwatching resembles in more ways than one.

These aspects of Nightwatching are so impressive I just wish the script were a little tighter and sharper to make the picture a more satisfying whole. Greenaway too often allows himself to get bogged down in exposition and he frequently gives his characters long, drearily indigestible speeches that fail to move things forward in the manner they should. Nevertheless, this remains a fine and fascinating film, and as someone who has often had major issues with this filmmaker's work, I must confess it's the most fun I've had watching one of his pictures since The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. At its best, Nightwatching is an artistically and intellectually stimulating experience, and while Greenaway might feel that cinema is dead, it looks like there's life in this old dog yet.