Nightwatching, apparently Greenaway’s 15th film proper, tells the story of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s painting ‘The Nightwatch’ and its conception. In the British director’s version of events, Rembrandt reluctantly took on the task of painting an ensemble portrait of a group of Dutch dignitaries, but is tormented by the idea of glorifying a bunch of men with an array of sordid and unsavoury backgrounds. Thus, Rembrandt conspires to decorate the painting with subtle hints of their crimes, in order to expose their criminality and maintain his integrity as a painter. These hints include the appearance of an abused maid, a banished soldier and a fired gun- all evidence of corrupt activities.
Greenaway’s films have often been concerned with conspiracies and mysteries, so Nightwatching is in good company. I think the most able comparison for the film is his early feature The Draughtsman’s Contract, where a painter becomes entangled in a country house murder mystery. His new film is possibly one of his most accessible; in the Q & A he stated that he was encouraged to do A (commercial) and B (artistic) films in rotation, and this was considered by his backers as an A film.
How does it match up to his previous work? Well, I’d say it was up there with his best. Not quite up to the standards of The Cook, the thief…, but equal to Draughtsman’s and A Z and Two Noughts. It is one of his most warm, comedic films; the characters are actually very well drawn out and there are signs of genuine emotion. Martin Freeman is very good in the lead role, drawing on his comic capabilities as a put-upon man, while demonstrating a more dramatic pathos as well. The supporting cast is reliably excellent, although I was a little bemused by Nathalie Press’ performance; unneringly precious and slightly eerie in its execution.
But more importantly, as we’re talking about an artist filmmaker here, is that it looks absolutely stunning. Almost every interior is lit exquisitely like a Rembrandt painting. The period is accurately rendered in the production design, while the dramatic lighting gives the sets and the actors a resolutely painterly appearance. One of the standout scenes for me was an early scene where the house dines round circular tables, each person draped in shadow and with the slightly grainy texture of a painting. It is arguably his most visually resplendent film since Sacha Vierny’s death.
Another departed collaborator in Michael Nyman is hardly missed; his Polish successor conjuring Nyman’s propulsive and alternately serene passages, but in a new form. Nyman’s scoring is always something to look forward to, but here he has a capable substitute. One interesting thing Greenaway said was that one of the reasons he got into film was because he wanted to put paintings to music, and couldn’t do it anywhere else. Furthermore, instead of combining the visuals and aural aspects seamlessly into the narrative, he has always been determined to make the audience extremely aware of each element of production.
Greenaway was a compelling subject. He spoke with an actors booming voice and authority, somewhat pretentious some might say, talking into the heavens like a bonafide academic. I got the feeling, being that this was probably one of his first encounters with a British audience for a while, that he was using it as a platform for himself, and perhaps even wanted to prove something. He has often spoken out about the constraints of the British film industry, particularly for himself, and rightly so. One of the most pertinent questions was ‘Where can we get hold of your films?’, a damning indictment of Greenway’s reception in the UK. Much of the discussion centred around the future of cinema-it’s dead, apparently- and Greenaway’s multimedia work. He showed us a short clip of his work with ‘The Last Supper’, which used computer graphics to distort and play with the image. Frankly, it looked pretty silly and not far from an 80’s educational science video.
Stick to the feature films, Peter.