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Working in the dead domain
A UK region 2 DVD review of NIGHTWATCH / NATTEVAGTEN by Slarek
 

Nightwatch, either as a compound word or the more grammatically friendly Night Watch (with or without the definite article), has proved a rather popular title. It was a 1916 short film made by Robert Ellis, an obscure 1926 melodrama directed by Fred Caldwell, an equally hard-to-find 1928 drama directed by the great Alexander Korda, a 1960 French crime thriller directed by Jacques Becker of Touchez pas au grisbi fame, a 1973 psychological thriller starring Liz Taylor and Laurence Harvey, a 1989 TV thriller helmed by a certain Danny Boyle, and a 1995 Alistair MacLean TV actioner starring Pierce Brosnan. More recently it has come to international prominence as the English language title of Timur Bekmambetov's big budget Russian vampire epic Nochnoy dozor.

This particular version is Danish in origin (thus the true title is Nattevagten) and was directed by Ole Bornedal, who was also responsible for the 1997 English language remake starring Ewan McGregor. If you've never seen the original then don't feel too bad, as you're not alone by any means – such is often the fate of non-English language films of any genre (mind you, precious few seem to have caught the remake either). But if you've a taste for thrillers that do a little more than follow generic convention then Nightwatch is definitely one to catch.

Following some familiar signposting involving a news report that outlines the activities of a psychopathic killer who is working the area, we get pleasant surprise number one when a setup that on paper sounds like the stuff of teen horror clichés – law student Martin starts a job a night watchman in a morgue – is handled in a refreshingly matter-of-fact and even inventive manner. The genuinely likeable Martin's introduction to the job at the hands of his departing predecessor is devoid of overdone spooky atmosphere or peculiar imagery, with only a couple of suggestive comments ("didn't they tell you why I quit?"), a brief mention of a past scandal involving necrophilia and a couple of interesting camera angles painting the location as anything other than a place of work for a cash-strapped student. The expected dark corridors and dead bodies are there, but any threat they pose is rooted firmly in Martin's own phobia. His first night on the job is a quiet showstopper, as he becomes increasingly tormented by the small detail of his office – an unusual photograph on the wall, the sound of a moth caught in the overhead light, the mere presence of an alarm that he has been assured will never go off. It's very neat illustration of how even the most innocuous can seem threatening when fuelled by uncertainty and superstition. Those who swallow the claptrap of shows like Most Haunted would do well to take note.

Pleasant surprise number two comes in the shape of close friend Jens – he may act like a dick at times, and his dare-setting relationship with Martin and fondness for outrageous stunts too clearly point to a ghoulish prank to played at the latter's expense, but he's nonetheless a believable and rounded character that you can't help but like in spite of his sometimes insensitive tomfoolery. Credit here is due to some great character work and two well judged performances from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Kim Bodnia, who sell the friendship between Martin and Jens as close and long-standing and effectively smooth over any credibility blips in Jens' behaviour towards those supposedly close to him.

Inevitably, given that this IS a thriller, newsworthy killer and night-shift law student are clearly destined to cross paths, and Martin's amiable relationship with weather-beaten Inspector Wörmer soon sours when he finds himself suspected of grim crimes against the body of the killer's most recent victim. The deliberate shielding of the killer's identity and a scattering of possible red herrings invite us to play the same who-could-it-be? guessing game that starts to torment the characters, and while the climactic face-to-face confrontation may play to expectations, it's nonetheless handled with some aplomb.

This final act slip into generic convention – and do remember that Nightwatch was made at the very front end of the recent serial killer cycle – fails to seriously hurt a film that scores so highly on the quality of its character detail, its involving build-up and its refusal to get gratuitous or obvious with a set-up that openly invites a filmmaker to do just that. The darker elements are here, not least in the suggestion of necrophilia and the character of teenage prostitute Joyce, but they add depth to the drama rather than providing food for viscera. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen (he of Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and briskly edited by Camilla Skousen, Nightwatch is more involving and frankly classier than many of the films that followed in its (or rather Se7en's) sub-generic wake. And that includes, somewhat inevitably, Bornedal's own remake.

sound and vision

OK, bone-picking time. The good news is that the transfer on Metrodome's UK DVD is in the correct aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and of consistently solid quality. The bad news is that's it's letterboxed, so if you've got a really big TV then the frame enlargement is going to knock that quality down. No problems with contrast and colour, and the detail is good within these restrictions, but knowing that Anchor Bay's region 1 release has an anamorphic transfer does irritate a little. Somewhat more annoying is that the menus are anamorphically encoded, as are a couple of the pre-feature trailers, but the real kicker is that the DVD case claims that the picture is, and I quote, "1:1.85 anamorphic," which it simply is not.

The Dolby stereo 2.0 soundtrack is as clear and well mixed. You can argue that a 5.1 track would have possibly been more inclusive and atmospheric, but once again you'll have to go to Anchor Bay's disc for that particular experience. Word is that it's little different from the stereo track, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over that one.

extra features

The Anchor Bay disc has a theatrical trailer and a commentary by director Ole Bornedal. We get one but not the other. Care to guess which?

Theatrical Trailer (1:29)
The original Danish trailer, no less, complete with subtitle translation for us non-Danish speakers. It's a pretty good sell, as it should be.

Behind the Scenes (28:16)
Here's one place where Metrodome have the edge on Anchor Bay. Footage of the shoot alternates with (long) clips of the film and on-set interviews with many of the key participants in the production, plus a couple you might not expect – the Steadicam operator, gaffer and clapper-loader outline their jobs in a surprising amount of detail. Given Bornedal's assured direction, it's interesting to discover that he was self-taught after his film school application was rejected – with the film's sizeable financial success on home turf I'll be those responsible for that decision were kicking themselves later.

summary

Despite its age in the serial killer movie timeline, one of the most endearing qualities of Nightwatch is its freshness, particularly its handling of character and location, although it also delivers on atmosphere and, when it counts, tension. Metrodome's UK DVD release scores on picture quality but loses points for the non-anamorphic transfer and then a few more for telling fibs about it on the box. The absence of the commentary from the Anchor Bay disc is also a shame, but this is partially compensated for by the informative behind-the-scenes documentary that sits in its place. Nightwatch is definitely worth hunting out – which disc you go for is very much a matter of preference, but I'd look carefully at the specs of both before making that choice.

Nightwatch
Nattevagten

Denmark 1994
103 mins
director
Ole Bornedal
starring
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Sofie Gråbøl
Kim Bodnia
Lotte Andersen
Ulf Pilgaard
Rikke Louise Andersson

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
Danish
subtitles
English
extras
Trailers
Making-of documentary
distributor
Metrodome
release date
17 March 2008
review posted
30 March 2008

See all of Slarek's reviews