Thursday, September 20, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Nightwatching"

(Special Presentations) (Canada/United Kingdom/Poland/The Netherlands, 2007) Written and directed by: Peter Greenaway Cast: Martin Freeman, Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Toby Jones

To say that Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway’s newest film, is his most accessible isn’t saying much—this isn’t like David Lynch going all G-rated on us with The Straight Story. Despite an intriguing what if? scenario about one of the world’s most famous paintings, it goes on way too long, the drama is flattened under the weight of its sober formalism, and the performances range from the laughably shrill to the hopelessly unintelligible.
Perhaps Greenaway can’t help it: after all, this is the same filmmaker who after more than thirty years still regards narrative cinema as an immature art form. He’s a multimedia rabble-rouser who demands a lot of his audience and frequently rewards patience and intelligence…to the point of exhaustion. So it’s doubley-depressing that director who once said “I think it is really important to be in some way provocative -- either intellectually or viscerally” has delivered something so inert. Nightwatching seems calculated to be the mordant auteur’s Amadeus, even though the pokey result is something far less than Milos Foreman’s bawdy crowd Oscar winner and more akin to Ken Russell’s nebulous Mahler (although personally, by the time my hip cracked at the two-and-a-half hour mark, I thought it could’ve used a little Lisztomania...).

We first meet the manic Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) well into his career as Holland’s most successful artist. He lives in an opulent home in Amsterdam with his pregnant wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), and a host of servants, with Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes) being his favorites.

With a child on the way, Rembrandt is urged by his wife to accept an offer to paint a portrait of the 17 local merchants who comprise the Kloveniers--the Amsterdam Civil Guard--for a handsome commission. But he resists the assignment at first, until one of the members is killed by an “accidental” musket misfire and he suspects a cover up.

He immerses himself in the physics of firearms to recreate the fatal shot. Appealing to the guardsmen’s vanity, he learns that their leader, Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis), was concealing a forbidden affair with co-conspirator Willem van Ruytenburgh (Adam Kotz). He uncovers that the orphanage under the Guard's protection is a front for a child brothel.

No longer content to squander his skills and secret knowledge on a conventional military portrait, Rembrandt makes his accusations within the cryptic details of the painting itself, to send a message to the conspirators that he’s on to their hypocrisy (he even includes himself in the painting, partially visible behind Banning Cocq’s head). But the work is halted when Saskia dies and Rembrandt plummets into grief.

Nevertheless, he completes the work, and the conspirators vow revenge. To discredit him, they send a mistress to seduce and betray him. They try to blind him. Bankrupt him. Even attempt to kill his son. But the work, comprising a total of 34 individual characters, goes on to become his most celebrated work: The Night Watch, or, The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch.

The Nightwatch was such a dense and mysterious work that centuries later there’s still a lot of room for conjecture as to what it all means, and Greenaway’s theories are well-researched and make a certain amount of dramatic sense. But he’s not much of a storyteller, at least not in the three-act model, and the film’s virtues lie squarely in its art direction (it’s a highbrow companion to the living illustrations of Sin City or 300). Greenaway has never denied the influence of Renaissance painting and the Dutch Masters on his past works and here he gets to revel in it, with figures perfectly composed amidst the nuances of costume detail and architecture and meticulous lighting schemes that perfectly balance light and shadow, simulating photographically the chiarascuro technique Rembrandt modified to his own style.

But for all of his exactitude to period detail, Greenaway never creates a convincing sense of time and place. Although shot in Amsterdam, the UK, Poland, and apparently right here in Canada, the film is stage bound and hermetically-sealed, we never get a sense of The Netherland’s “Golden Age”, and Rembrandt’s environment rarely extends beyond his home’s dark interior and a rooftop balcony where he interacts with neighbouring servants on what looks like a leftover set from David S. Ward’s Cannery Row.

It doesn’t help that Rembrandt is portrayed by Martin Freeman of all people, who’s perhaps best known for his role as “Tim” in Ricky Gervais’ original The Office serials, and recently as Arthur Dent in the feature version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’s a likeable actor, sure, and his toussled mane and facial stubble make him look as much like the famous painter as we know from his self-portraits, but Freeman never sold me on van Rijn’s lusty bravado and tortured artistic temperament.

And yet, there’s something about the film that wants you to love it—to share Rembrandt’s passion to transcend the limitations of the canvas, admire at his enlightened, progressive attitudes, titter at its explicit bedroom romps, wince at the tragedies that befall his young family, and channel your armchair sleuth at every knot twist of its DaVinci Codey conspiracy plot –but dammit Greenaway, how can I love Nightwatching when you keep pushing me away?
©2007 Robert J. Lewis