Fri, Aug 22, 2008 - Page 16 News List

Art with a capital ‘A,’ and acting, too

Martin Freeman’s splendid evocation of Rembrandt helps ‘Nightwatching’ rise above the self-conscious artistry of its composition

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER


Peter Greenaway is one of those English directors who have embraced the European tradition of the art film, with its ostentatious intellectualism and its consuming passion for post-modernism. But he has occasionally flirted with the mainstream, most notably in his controversial film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), which had something that might be described as a narrative line and the recognizable faces of Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren. He is back in flirtatious mood with his most recent film Nightwatching, which is purportedly a biographical snippet from the life of the Dutch Renaissance painter Rembrandt, and which stars Martin Freeman of The Office in a truly stunning performance.

It doesn’t take many minutes into the film to realize that biography is the least of Greenaway’s concerns and that popular appeal is not uppermost in his mind. This is a film about Art, capital “A,” and why art matters, and how art both raises up humanity, yet may also destroy individuals. Freeman shows himself a powerful actor who is able to humanize genius, both in its tormented and obsessive aspects, as well as in the many failings that artistic genius is also somehow able to encompass. While Freeman is the best known of the cast, there are some splendid performances, most notably by Eva Birthistle, who plays Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife and the dominating female influence in the story.

Unsurprisingly for a Greenaway film, the main subject is itself a work of art. Nightwatching is about how Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch came to be created. The painting depicts a group of citizen militia turning out for a parade, but Greenaway posits that it contains a secret accusation against the men it depicts: the sexual abuse of young children entrusted to their care. Freeman’s character accepts the commission to create a group portrait because of the much-needed money and the kudos it will bring, but cannot resist using the work to accuse the men of terrible crimes, which he learns of during the course of painting the group portrait.

Film Notes


DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

STARRING: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt van Rijn), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje), Eva Birthistle (Saskia), Jodhi May (Geertje), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou)



In this respect, comparisons can be made with the otherwise very different movie The Da Vinci Code, in which a picture reveals hidden truths. Greenaway has always insisted on playing games with the way art relates to life, and this is done quite elegantly in Nightwatching, as he embarks on a remarkably subtle and detailed analysis of the picture as it is formed on the canvas through the course of the movie while exploring how it resonates through Rembrandt’s life and the lives of all those depicted. Rembrandt as played by Freeman has an intense physicality and many, many weaknesses, both of the spirit and the flesh.

Freeman creates a character who is charismatic, vain, insecure, arrogant, talented and intensely stupid all at the same time, and it is this fully realized version of an artist that saves Nighwatching from the self-conscious artistry of its composition. It gives the film a beating heart and sets it apart from the soulless pseudo-Brechtian wilderness of something like Lars von Trier’s Dogville.

But even Freeman’s best efforts cannot overcome the convoluted plot line, which seems to willfully confuse. There are elements of a who-done-it about Nightwatching, as Rembrandt gradually gathers the evidence that convinces him that these members of the citizen militia prey on the very society they are sworn to protect, but the plot sags under the weight of an overextended cast and Greenaway’s almost pathological disdain for linear narrative. Working out who is who becomes increasingly like an art history exercise of identifying characters in a large and complex Renaissance painting such as The Night Watch. But as with the painting, it also has many subtleties and complexities that repay attention, and you leave the cinema wanting to watch the film again in the hope of discovering more from it, rather than simply dismissing it as the intolerable mess that it sometimes appears.

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