National Gallery review: Drawing in viewers slowly but surely

Frederick Wiseman’s latest offering is a long, close look at the National Gallery in London

National Gallery
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Director: Frederick Wiseman
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 3 hrs 0 mins

Film fans know the drill. Since 1967, film-maker Frederick Wiseman has trained his camera for months (and sometimes a year) at a chosen subject.

Having amassed hundreds of hours of footage, he retreats to the editing room for another year, where he “finds the film”. His work is scholarly, scientific and as unscathed by ideology as documentary making can be.

There are no talking heads and no captions. There is no editorialising or narration.

To date the 81-year-old has painstakingly fashioned 41 features. The titles do precisely what they say on the tin. Most are guided by place: notably Central Park (1989) or Belfast, Maine (1999). Some are guided by theme: Deaf (1986) or Domestic Violence (2001). Many more are committed to the study of institutions: High School (1968), Zoo (1993), Racetrack (1985), and Boxing Gym (2010).


Wiseman’s films are precisely as long as they need to be.

At Berkeley

(2013) spent much of its four-hour running time in meetings where staff struggled with budget cuts, a seemingly humdrum focus that slowly coalesced into a fascinating, larger snapshot of education in America.

La Danse (2009), a portrait of the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris, lingers on the plastering work.

The shot might be awfully like watching paint dry were it not part of a larger expanse of behind-the-scenes machinations.

Minutiae is necessary to the Wiseman project. Each of his locations and themes offers a microcosm, a handy key to the complicated business of human psychology. And nothing isolates human behaviour quite as effectively as office politics and humdrum chores.

The Wiseman methodology has not changed over the years, and yet, in recent years, his films are inching toward larger release patterns, bigger audiences and rave notices. Maybe, like his work, we just needed some time to get it.

National Gallery takes us behind the lions of Trafalgar Square and inside the National Gallery in London, home to more than 2,300 masterpieces. Enthusiastic guides give tours. Backroom folks discuss marketing ventures. Curators discuss lighting and position. Floors are polished.

Museum director Nicholas Penny admits he doesn't really like Poussin. Retouchers apply delicate brushstrokes to the fading works of Old Masters. Cleaners get to work on Velázquez' Christ in The House of Martha and Mary. Blockbuster seasonal highlights include special Titian and Turner exhibitions.

Education is a key tenet for the gallery, perhaps in atonement for its colonial past. There are life-drawing classes and outreach programmes, including raised versions of paintings for the blind.

The same viewers who have lately started to queue up for exhibitions on screen will surely delight in the virtual gallery tour.

Preoccupations dovetail: the director has a flair for capturing behaviour, and all human life can be found in the National Gallery’s collection.

But Wiseman’s film has a sneaky, brilliant way of raising broader issues about the democratisation and commercialisation of art, without saying anything at all.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic