Film Review: Portrait of a Garden

This visually striking documentary about impassioned Dutch gardeners is meditative but at moments a tad monotonous.
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Rosie Stapel’s debut feature Portrait of a Garden is a haunting, lyrical documentary about the oldest “kitchen garden” (as it’s dubbed) in the Netherlands on an estate dating back to 1630, though for hundreds of years it lay fallow. It is now owned and cultivated by sixty-something Daan van der Have, who works alongside Jan Freriks, an 85-year-old pruning master and something of a mentor. Theirs is an easygoing, mutually affectionate relationship that has lasted more than 20 years.

Despite their low-key personas and soft, almost monotone vocal styles, their commitment, indeed, passion—an overused word, but accurately applied here—is impressive as they tend to and debate various approaches to a cornucopia of vegetables (including tomatoes, potatoes, radishes and cabbage) and flowering trees. Their extensive knowledge has been passed down through the generations and refined through personal trial and error.

A mutually shared concern and a frequent topic of discussion is two rows of pear trees on either side of an arbor that will ultimately grow into a perfect semi-circle at the top of the arbor. It’s getting there slowly, very slowly. Still, 15 years have passed and it’s not there yet. Gardening is not for the impatient. As they admit, it takes years of work and is an ill-suited activity for people who are frustrated by “incompletion.”

The film follows the pair, other gardeners onboard, and the massive garden itself over the course of four seasons. With the help of time-lapse photography and high-end design, the land is as visually stunning in the middle of the winter—snow-laden, barren and denuded—as it is in the summer with its thick lush greenery or the fall awash in golden, orange and yellow foliage.

Without being heavy-handed, the film embodies, however subtly, a political viewpoint in its celebration of a self-sustaining, low-tech agricultural subculture. “Banking will diminish due to automation, but thinning our plums is here to stay,” Jan says at one point. Still, it would have been useful to know a little more about the history of the property and the dynamics of how it all works—how and by whom it is underwritten, the size of the staff, and to whom the food is distributed besides the onsite restaurant that utilizes the homegrown produce. Some background information about the two leading “characters” is also needed. Their love of gardening doesn’t quite carry it after a point, especially since the film is devoid of dramatic conflict.

Sameness in tone, mood and even scene length is problematic. The rhythms are authentic and meditative, yet the lack of variety is lulling. Similarly, the background music right out of a classical chamber concert is exquisite in its own right, perfect for the material, and a tad monotonous. It’s a paradox.

That said, for the impassioned gardener, Portrait of a Garden is well worth the cost of a ticket.

Click here for cast and crew information.