Color, 2007, 134m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Martin Freeman, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Michael Teigen, Michael Culkin, Eva Birthistle
Atlantic (Sweden Blu-Ray R0 HD), E1 (US R1 NTSC), Paradise Digital (Russia R5 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
After the sprawling and mostly ignored indulgences of his still-obscure Tulse Luper Suitcases series, director Peter Greenaway thankfully decided to go back to basics with this film, an atmospheric mystery revolving around the creation of one of the world's most famous paintings, Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." As with all of Greenaway's more recent output, this one has had extreme difficulty finding distribution outside the usual festival circuit, but it's easily his most satisfying piece of work in the past decade.
In the startling opening sequence, a shadowy group of men waving torches in the darkness assault and temporarily blind Rembrandt (Freeman from the BBC's The Office and Sherlock). The story then flashes back to find the bawdy Rembrandt living with his pregnant wife, Saskia (Birthistle). As Holland's most prestigious painter, he's commissioned to create a group portrait of Amsterdam's musketeer militia. When one of the musketeers is killed in a military "accident," the painter suspects foul play and begins to investigate, slipping clues into his painting to create an indictment of the guilty parties. Unfortunately, this tactic exposes more than he expected (including a particularly perverse brothel), and the conspiracy manipulates one of his servants, Geertje (May), into contributing to his downfall.
A staggeringly beautiful film, Nightwatching wisely drops the hyperactive digital image layering which consumed Greenaway's more recent work. Instead, the narrative (which often deliberately recalls his first feature, the lush art-history thriller The Draughtsman's Contract) serves as a more linear structure than usual with a fiesty lead performance by Freeman, who imbues the entire project with a welcome amount of lusty humor, energy and soul. Greenaway also includes some welcome elements of other past works (the dark, beautifully-lit stage tableaux from The Baby of Macon, the Dutch painting obsessions from A Zed and Two Noughts, the elaborate and often lewd banquets from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the birth and creation/destruction motifs of The Belly of an Architect), and thankfully Greenaway has finally gone back to using an original score, this time by Wlodek Pawlik with a few potent quotations from Giovanni Solamar. Newcomers probably won't find much to latch onto here, but those lamenting the absence of a really juicy film from the director should find plenty to enjoy here. And no one has ever managed to make shots of sweeping torches in the dark look creepier.
Since most viewers will probably never have a chance to see this in a theater, the DVD releases were the first available option for most viewers and make for an adequate alternative. The anamorphic transfer used for the releases looks satisfying throughout; some digital distortion is evident in the opening and closing credits, but overall the powerful chiaroscuro lighting effects are captured beautifully. The powerful 5.1 surround mix (in English) is subtle but effective as well, often echoing the unnerving ambient surround effects found in Cook. (A 5.1 Russian-dubbed version is also included on the Paradise disc along with optional Russian subtitles). The two-disc US release sweetens the deal with a second disc containing Rembrandt J’accuse, an ambitious making-of-via-symbolic-rumination on the themes of the film with the director and cast expounding further upon its provocative key ideas.
Released well after the two standard def options is a Blu-Ray edition from Sweden, which is region free and contains no PAL content. The jump in image quality is evident right away as the dark opening scenes have far more dimensionality and detail, while the rest of the film looks extremely good. It doesn't have the hyper-sharp quality you expect from films this recent in HD thanks to the sometimes gauzy and softly lit wide shots, but it definitely improves in every way over the DVDs. Even more obvious is the gain in sound quality, as the lossless DTS soundtrack booms, rumbles, and whooses with astonishing force in many scenes; it's a terrifically enveloping track that compensates for the sometimes overly talky nature of some sequences. The English audio can be played with optional Swedish or Danish subtitles; there are no extras.