Peter Greenaway comes on like Oliver Stone transformed into a wry art scholar in Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, his self-described “investigation” of the Dutch master’s 1642 painting The Night Watch, which he posits as a theatrically calculated “indictment by image” of a murder within a prominent Amsterdam citizen militia. Greenaway—whose prosecutorial head is present in a modestly-sized video frame in the lower center of the screen, nearly as often as his voice narrates the conspiracy theory—sniffs that most people are “visually illiterate” in the age of the written text, then attempts to scrape away the centuries by contextualizing Night Watch in its political and social epoch, with some of the same DV sleight-of-effects that stuffed his Tulse Luper Suitcases trilogy but with a lighter touch and a clearer through line. Sequentially dissecting 31 mysteries he spies on the giant canvas he scrutinizes with a coroner’s exactitude, Greenaway credits Rembrandt with tactics ranging from gay innuendo (a captain’s shadowed hand falling just above his lieutenant’s erect, crotch-level blade) to outrage at child prostitution, all in the service of pointing to the militia officer’s officially accidental death as a premeditated coup in the service of Anglo-friendly families’ financial interest in the Crown Jewels of fractious England. Martin Freeman, playing a crusading Rembrandt with a curdled skepticism closer to his Office character than Stone’s righteous Jim Garrison from JFK, leads the cast of period scenes that are not so much dramatized as inserted as trial exhibits (in footage excerpted from Greenaway’s 2007 dramatic feature on this same subject, Nightwatching); elsewhere, the director (or a proxy) interrogates the likes of Mrs. Van Rijn (Eva Birthistle) in cinematic deposition. Most viewers are unlikely to share the depth of Greenaway’s art-geek obsession with this purported murder mystery in oils, but smoothed by the filmmaker’s mock-BBC intonations of his clever, jaundiced argument, this immersive tour of the mortal manipulations fueling Europe’s 17th-century cultural capital supplies wit and intellect while it starves the emotions.
- 86 min
- Peter Greenaway
- Peter Greenaway
- Peter Greenaway, Martin Freeman, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Jonathan Holmes
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: