I’ll let you in on a secret. Known to festival buffs and die-hard collectors, it’s a fact of which much of the general public is sadly ignorant. Musicians still record albums. And movie-makers still make films. It may be hard to believe, given the seemingly endless stream of forgettable popcorn sequel remakes, but it’s true. I was lucky enough to see two of them in this past month alone.
The first was the latest, heavily condensed version of the John le Carré classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring the inimitable Gary Oldman as George Smiley. The other was Nightwatching, a film by Peter Greenaway, starring Martin Freeman as Rembrandt (yes, you read that right). It’s a story about art, politics, sex and love, and a famous painting (The Night Watch) with a mystery at its core.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, there was a time when you could look at a single frame of film and know instantly what movie it was, or who directed it – when good movies and good directors had a signature look that was as unmistakable as a fingerprint. Even the earliest of the classic Disney movies had it (although you’d never guess that these days). Movies that so perfectly captured an era, or a mood, or a thought, that they were forever stamped in the public consciousness as a result. Now, I’m not saying either of the films I saw quite made the eternal classic-to-be grade, but at least it’s nice to know that somewhere out there, people are still trying.
Nightwatching is one of those films that defies genre to the point where you’re left wondering how to describe it afterwards. Is it a film, or a painting in motion? A work of art, or an act of theatre? A profound what-if, or merely a self-reflexive daydream-cum-nightmare? From the first scene, it’s shot and lit like a play; you half expect to hear people in the audience shuffling and clearing their throats. Every frame is tone-coloured to feel like you are living inside one of Rembrandt’s paintings – visceral, rich, dark, intimately real, yet unreal. The dialogue is that strange admixture of naturalistic (to the point of crass) and highly stylized, that makes one wonder what Shakespeare might have sounded like if he had been working rated R instead of PG.
The pacing of the film is, as you might suspect, much like watching a painting in progress. It could easily bore one person to tears, while keeping the next on the edge of his/her seat. I found myself oddly mesmerized by the gradually increasing tension, the way it sucks you in, starts you guessing, begins with vague hints that devolve into brutal directness as the film progresses. And there was no small amount of beauty in the sheer look of the thing. The statements, and criticisms, the characters make about the famous painting throughout the movie could just as easily apply to the film itself.
Even the role of the audience is unclear. At times you feel like a trusted confidante, a fellow conspirator; at other times, like a voyeur, witnessing things you were never meant to see, scenes that would make an HBO movie blush. Yet despite its excesses – and yes, it has it all – it never feels gratuitous. Perhaps because of the way it builds, adding layers and depth as it goes, tempting you to look closer, so that you don’t realize the disturbing nature of what you’re looking at until it’s too late.
It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, or the prudish, or the easily bored (for the ADHD-afflicted, I recommend re-watching The Transporter). But I think I can say it achieves what it sets out to. In the end, love it or hate it, it is a work of art. Derivative it may be, but you could do far worse than deriving your inspiration from one of the greatest painters of all time. You won’t come away from this movie feeling happy. You might not even like it. But if you stick with it to the end, it’s a safe bet you won’t ever forget it.
Speaking of albums – Hugh Laurie’s “Let Them Talk” is worth a listen. Check it out.