Directed by: Peter Greenaway
Countries & Regions: Canada, Netherlands, United Kingdom
Studio: Axiom Films
Length: 136 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 26 April 2010
Cat No: AXM609
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Peter Greenaway writes and directs this biographical drama exploring the life and work of 19th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.... Read More
Was Rembrant really a painter at all?", asks Peter Greenaway (himself, more an artist than a traditional filmmaker). "Was he not - like so many of his contemporaries - a man of the drama stage, composing frozen moments of illusionistic and manipulative theatre, and in so doing, prophesying the cinema medium?"
If Rembrandt prophesied the cinematic medium, Greenaway has been anticipating its demise for some time, and his recent work has focused on interactive video projects and multimedia installations. A surprise, then, that his latest film, Nightwatching, has a conventional narrative - a murder mystery, no less! - and marks a welcome return to his more accessible, if defiantly provocative, earlier work.
Nightwatching stars Martin Freeman as Rembrandt, and the film depicts The Dutch Master's journey from celebrity to pauper, following his relationship with the three women in his life: Saskia (Eva Birthistle), his business-minded wife; the lusty Geertje (Jodhi May), his son's nurse; and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes), a servant 20 years his junior.
In the words of the director, the film's themes can be summarised as "money, sex, conspiracy, and the very condition of painting". The story revolves around the painting of The Night Watch, a preening group portrait commissioned by a wealthy local Dutch militia.
According to Greenaway, Rembrandt's masterpiece contains 51 separate mysteries: why is one figure loading his rifle upside down? Why does one character carry two right-handed gloves? Why is a musket being fired in the middle of the crowd? Is the suggestive placing of a lancehead between a character's legs, and the grasping shadow of another man's hand, intentional? And who on earth is the girl - or dwarf - in the yellow dress?
Greenaway's proposed solution answers all these questions in one fell swoop. As in The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), The Night Watch contains allegorical clues which reveal a conspiracy and a coverup; think The Da Vinci Code for grownups.
Freeman depicts Rembrant as lusty, stubborn, strutting, pug-nosed and pugnacious, a man determined to prick the hypocrisy of his social betters, and the film is at its best when it contrasts the bawdy intrigue of the artist's public life with the emerging intimacy of his marriage-of-convenience to Saskia. Later scenes ramble on, and Włodek Pawlik's endlessly repetitive score is a poor parody of Michael Nyman, but the film is an engrossing work from an artist who, like Rembrandt, illuminates the darkness with brushstrokes of light.
Rembrandt portrayed his subjects in a cacophony of motion, with bold use of light and shadow heightening the drama of the scene, and Greenaway's own cinematic formalism - his painterly compositions, meticulous lighting and busy stagecraft - beautifully illustrates Rembrandt's technique without needing to show the artist actually pick a brush.