Sydney Film Festival Review: National Gallery (USA/France, 2014)


This beautiful documentary offers an insight into the daily life of the National Gallery in London. Unfolding over three hours, Frederick Wiseman with his characteristic unobtrusive touch allows conversations and activities to unfold in real time, giving the viewer the ability to observe in true ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style.

The impressive collection housed by the gallery is showcased in the film, the camera gliding over works by the likes of Turner, Velasquez and Titian. Additionally, as the documentary was recorded during the National Gallery’s Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition in 2012, the viewer can bear witness to both the great works and the success of the exhibition.

National Gallery, in simple and unhurried fashion, looks at all the layers of the institution, from the gallery floor to the committee room, from an educational talk to the work of restoration and conservation. Certainly it is a slow and even sometimes static documentary, but it is also a contemplative and relaxed experience, much like a visit to the gallery itself.

This approach highlights the many roles of the gallery and switching between these functions helps to keep it interesting. For example, informative and engaging talks are presented for just long enough, before a switch to a fascinating discussion how to best restore a painting. The committee meetings are always enjoyable, with the director Nicholas Penny proving to be quite a character, often challenging the marketing efforts and bluntly questioning such initiatives as utilising the frontage of the gallery for a projection to aid Sport Relief.

National Gallery trulyis an excellent example of Wiseman’s inimitable style, his minimalism and instinct for rhythm and structure shining through to create a quietly engaging film. Sometimes his characteristic avoidance of title cards can be mildly disorientating, but it is a small price to pay for the overall aesthetic.

The documentary offers a seemingly unrestricted wander through the National Gallery, giving the opportunity for an unprecedented insider perspective and is invaluable viewing for those who have enjoyed visiting the gallery or with an interest in art.

It reminds us, in the words of one of the guides, that although paintings won’t last forever, they will last longer than us. Likewise, the important cultural institution that is the National Gallery may not last forever, but it will outlive us.


National Gallery has its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival tomorrow morning at 9.30am. Tickets and details can be found HERE.


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