Today, Mandy Malone gives us her thoughts on the film Nightwatching by Peter Greenaway.
When I learned that the library was adding Nightwatching to its DVD collection, I was excited about the possibility of reviewing it for BFGB. I’ve long admired the films of British director Peter Greenaway, and when I heard that his latest film, Nightwatching, would explore the Dutch artist Rembrandt and the creation of his painting “The Night Watch,” my curiosity was piqued. Then I realized that I really wanted to analyze Nightwatching, not review it, and almost chose something else to review. As much as I enjoyed the film, it doesn’t lend itself to an easy review, but I thought I would try by commenting on the film’s plot and some of its stylistic elements. I should preface my remarks by saying that while the conspiracies at the heart of Nightwatching are completely fictitious, I think it would be inaccurate to simply characterize the film as a historical biography with wildly speculative elements.
Early in the film, Rembrandt’s (Martin Freeman) wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) becomes pregnant; and he accepts a commission to paint the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia. As work on the painting progresses, Rembrandt uncovers a host of secrets lurking among the members of the group, and when a murder occurs, he seizes on the commission as an opportunity to reveal the group’s dark deeds. Greenaway thus posits that “The Night Watch” was Rembrandt’s “J’Accuse,” a clever allegory exposing the multi-layered conspiracy. Once the painting is unveiled, the militia is outraged, but rather than destroy the painting outright the members plot to destroy Rembrandt’s life and career, and the fallout from the painting forms the final act of the film.
While the painting of “The Night Watch” and the conspiracy theory behind it provides the primary narrative framework for the movie, Greenaway weaves in elements of Rembrandt’s personal life, particularly his relationships with Saskia, and, following her death, his servants Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes). Greenaway’s vision of Rembrandt is that of a bawdy, lusty, driven artist, and Martin Freeman turns in a solid performance, conveying this vision without veering into caricature. Birthistle, May and Holmes are also quite good. Rembrandt’s relationships are pivotal to the story, and the actresses are effective in showing how the women in his life were not only the sources of his inspiration and redemption, but also the agents of his destruction.
Peter Greenaway’s films are unique in their cinematic style and unconventional approach to storytelling, and Nightwatching is no exception. The film is highly stylized, with each frame resembling a Dutch painting. The dialogue is rather dense, which is typical for a Greenaway film, and there are several images which are repeated throughout the film, giving the narrative an elliptical structure.
While Nightwatching may not be a film for everyone, it should appeal to Greenaway fans and the accessible nature of the subject matter could make it a good starting place for those interested in his films.
Check the WRL catalog for Nightwatching