National Gallery



London's great tourist attraction for art lovers is viewed here in depth by a famous filmmaker


National Gallery


Born on 1st January 1930, Frederick Wiseman is the great documentarist of American cinema. Quite apart from having a vast output which has included three completed films since National Gallery appeared in 2014 as well as a further project now in hand, Wiseman has created his own form of documentary: his films never rely on a commentary, eschew any music score and are never compact (National Gallery's running time of around three hours is characteristic). His mastery is evidenced in his instinct for placing the camera and in the flow of his films which he edits himself and all of his work (not infrequently concerned with institutions of one kind or another) bears the mark of its maker's curiosity and intelligence. There is no compromise involved as he sets out to make films for serious-minded viewers.


The one relatively unusual feature of National Gallery lies in the fact that, like 2009’s La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, it is among those works by Wiseman made outside of America. Because Wiseman always shows fidelity to what he uncovers this film comes over to his credit as a very English work, be it through the style of the gallery director Nicholas Penny, the tone of the committee meetings seen or the manner adopted by the expert guides who so eloquently and engagingly describe particular paintings to groups of visitors. Shot in 2011 and 2012 the film is naturally rich in art works ranging from Caravaggio to Stubbs and from Rembrandt to Velasquez, but Wiseman's interest extends also to such practical everyday subjects as administration (budgetary considerations and questions of advertising included) and the handling of restoration work. Extra activities touched on include life drawing and music recitals and, linked to a special exhibition of the work of Titian, Jo Shapcott reads her commissioned poem ‘Callisto's Song’ and there is a short dance sequence at the film's close.


Particularly in its first half, National Gallery finds Wiseman on peak form. Especially haunting are those scenes, superlatively photographed by John Davey, which capture the faces of the crowd as they peruse the faces in the portraits on view: the variety of expressions and the variety of angles make for a wonderfully detailed study of the observers and the observed alike. Only one thing prevents me from acclaiming National Gallery as a masterpiece: speaking personally, I find that three hours of unbroken concentration on this gallery and its art is just more than I can comfortably sustain. The close up view that Wiseman's film provides will for much of its length arouse real enthusiasm from all those drawn to this subject matter, but as it goes on and on it inevitably loses its freshness and by the end many a viewer is likely to feel exhausted. Ultimately it's a surfeit, and that's a pity. Nevertheless, this is a documentary of a quality that is often exceptional.




Featuring  Nicholas Penny, Larry Keith, Matthew Collings, Luke Syson, David Jaffe, Ashok Roy, Dawson Carr, Jo Shapcott, Jill Preston, Per Rumberg, Flavia Ormond, Susan Foister, Arturo Galansino.


Dir Frederick Wiseman, Pro Frederick Wiseman and Pierre-Olivier Burdet, Ph John Davey, Ed Frederick Wiseman. 


Gallery Film LLC/Idéale Audience-Soda Pictures.
181 mins. USA/France. 2014. Rel: 9 January 2015. Available on MUBI. Cert. 12A