Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary clocks in at a cool 181 minutes. But don’t let that put you off. If his recent documentaries (LA DANSE, AT BERKELEY) are anything to go by, Wiseman likes to take his time. Watching this documentary takes up about one eighth of your day. Spend the equivalent three hours in the National Gallery on London’s iconic Trafalgar Square, and there is absolutely no way you will cover as many of the goings-on in the gallery as Wiseman offers here.
The film flits from informative and often funny art-history tours around the gallery, to business meetings behind closed doors (discussing the cost-to-benefit ethics of projecting a Sports Relief montage onto the portico), to the work of restorers in the Conservation Department (methodically scraping away years of grime and varnish from various masterpieces), to visitors’ interactions with the paintings on display – or is it the other way around?
A particularly memorable sequence involves Camille Pissarro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night being deconstructed by a group of visually impaired art lovers. The scene is particularly effective in its execution, partly because of the original way the painting is described and broken down, but also because it is such a superb example of the gallery fulfilling the outreach ethos that we saw its executives fretting over at the start of the documentary.
There is the potential for a clash of cultures: between high art and low art, between art gallery and visitor attraction, and between the gallery and the film. Wiseman strikes a cool balance between them all, offering plenty of humour in his snappy editing, alongside a fairly hefty dollop of education about the business of operating an art museum in central London in the 21st century. Having initially seen it on the buyers’ market at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, I’m delighted that NATIONAL GALLERY has been picked up by the lovely folk at Soda Pictures and is screening in the UK as part of Picturehouse Cinemas’ excellent Discover Tuesdays programme.
An earlier version of this article appeared on TakeOne.