I have a very varied relationship with documentarian Frederick Wiseman and the films he brings to the London Film Festival. In 2011 I saw my first Wiseman film Crazy Horse and was bored out of my skull by the dull background antics of the Parisian club. Last year I changed my mind about Wiseman and fell in love with his four-hour epic study At Berkeley. This year I feel neither love nor hate but fall somewhere in between.
National Gallery is a three-hour portrait of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar square in London. In typical Wiseman style the documentary consists only of footage of events taking place in the gallery, both behind the scenes and amongst the public. What the film does not have is anyone talking directly to camera or any narration or score. This approach allows the National Gallery to speak for itself and for it to be seen in full unadulterated form.
Where Wiseman’s style works best is in peering behind the scenes of the gallery. I love moments spent sitting in on internal meetings as various departments push their own agenda and fail to listen to one another. I love finding out about the detailed restoration work that takes place in workshops to maintain the paintings as they give in to natural aging. Seeing into the nooks and crannies to see the day-to-day workings of a large institution is what makes a Wiseman film fascinating. It is the curious characters that come through in candid moments that make the film work and help maintain the audience’s interest through the long running time.
Where the film sags slightly is in allowing the gallery’s employees to speak in a less candid fashion and film them in presentation mode. While there are no interviews to camera Wiseman does allow himself to film subjects giving interviews to other journalists which, as I said with Crazy Horse, feels like cheating. There are also quite a few moments when the camera joins a tour group to learn about the history of a painting. While it is fascinating to hear this in-depth detail it feels like something that could be experienced by visiting the National Gallery itself and not exclusive to the film. What I want from a Wiseman documentary is the behind the scenes action, no matter how mundane (in fact the more mundane the better), the bits we can’t see if we visited the gallery ourselves. I love watching other institutions’ meetings; so much more fun than attending my own.
One other hole I will poke in the film is that it includes footage of Greenpeace hanging an anti-BP banner outside the gallery. As BP are sponsors of the National Gallery it would have caused some reaction in the managerial levels of the gallery but the documentary does not show any of this. Presumably the gallery didn’t want any discussion of their sponsors caught on film. An assumption perhaps but I see no other reason why this potentially fascinating avenue wasn’t explored more. A slight hint of narrative thread from something akin to the BP banner, like the student protests in At Berkeley, would have helped give the film a little more meat.
I remain loyal to Wiseman and will continue to sit through his future films at the film festival no matter how long they get. Sadly National Gallery failed to live up to the heights of At Berkeley and at times felt like more of a chore that a joy. There are definitely moments of interest and intrigue to be found but the film isn’t as consistent as its predecessor. In December a similar documentary will be released called The Great Museum which I will review nearer the time. I mention it now because it takes Wiseman’s style to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna but does so with more interesting behind the scenes goings on and half the running time. In comparison National Gallery feels lightweight and overstuffed at the same time.
One for fans of the National Gallery or people who want to visit but would rather watch a film instead.
National Gallery has no UK release date yet but screens at the London Film Festival on the 14th of October 2014.