Metro Weekly

The Night Watch

Reel Affirmations 2011

Review by Will O’Bryan

Rating: starstarstarstar (4 out of 5)
Friday, 10/14/2011, 7:15 PM
Feature presentation, $12 at Globe Theatre

IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR with Reel Affirmations, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the excellent British novelist Sarah Waters. She is a factory for employing BBC staff in screen adaptations of her period pieces. In 2008, the festival got her Affinity. For 2011, it’s The Night Watch, based on her 2006 novel of the same name.

Although Waters seems most at home writing of Victorian-era lesbians, she left that comfort zone for war – World War II, specifically (though we still get the lesbians, of course). And director Richard Laxton is respectful of Waters’s wartime London, even in a zippy 90 minutes, rather than the possibly more appropriate miniseries, à la Tipping the Velvet. All the good bits remain.

Those good bits take us to prison, to an illicit straight affair, to tangled lesbian webs, and to three different years. This is where it gets a bit tricky, opening in 1947. The war has been won, but that ”anything goes” wartime value has been lost. Propriety is resurgent. The butch Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin) wanders London in a fog and men’s trousers. Straight Viv (Jodie Whittaker) has some connection to her, but we don’t know what. Viv’s brother Duncan (Harry Treadaway) seems to harbor some shady secret that screams, ”Gay!” We wonder what’s up. Then, like a contracting rubber band, we’re pulled back to 1943. A few questions are answered, then another yank back to 1941, before a final return to 1947.

For such a beautifully filmed movie, with an equally beautiful cast (particularly Whittaker), the time shifts are painfully abrupt. Equally painful and nearly comical are Viv’s attempts to end her pregnancy. Knowing that she throws herself down the stairs is tragic. Showing us these multiple attempts in slow motion borders on the darkly slapstick.

Still, where The Night Watch should really deliver, it does. It’s about mood and richness. This is a fine five-course meal. With nothing more vibrant in the whole of the movie than an incendiary bomb or Kay’s lover in a red pajama top, The Night Watch presents this visually lush bleakness. Three buildings, different shades of gray, may be layered in an English drizzle as backdrop for Kay slicing through the city in her monotone overcoat, and it’s beautiful. It’s the visually perfect complement for the story itself, also gray. But it’s a gray you want to wrap yourself in. You quite likely won’t be able to make it easily from A to B through the fog of war, time traveling, and an arguably nihilistic narrative, but you will be traveling in style.

The Night Watch
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