By Rich Cline
As visually fascinating as anything Greenaway has done, this film's narrative is so convoluted that it's virtually impossible to follow unless you know the life story of Rembrandt. And even then it's a challenge.
When he's commissioned to paint a local militia group in 1642 Amsterdam, Rembrandt (Freeman) has premonitions of trouble, but goes ahead and creates a fiercely untraditional painting that reveals rather too many secrets about the musketeers depicted in it. While painting it, his sparky wife (Birthistle) gives birth to his son, but becomes seriously ill in the process, eventually causing him to turn to the family nurses (Holmes and May) for company. And when complete, the portrait, The Night Watch, has drastic repercussions on his career.
Greenaway's visual artistry is simply amazing as he places each scene on a large, stage-sized set lit deeply to look like a painting and filled with crowds of chattering actors. This creates a heightened sense of reality in which we're never quite sure if what we're watching is real, a dream or a layering of multiple scenes on top of each other. Meanwhile, the cast members all give strikingly naturalistic (and very modern) performances.
In the demanding central role, Freeman gives a remarkably full-bodied, energetic turn that gives the film its heart. Even when we're not sure who all these people are, we can identify with Rembrandt's frustration at the status quo, desire for justice and yearning for companionship after he loses his wife.
His conversations with the other characters are bursting with provocative meaning, which keeps us interested even as the general chaos gets a bit tedious.
This is a skilful, dense and very strange film, with snappy humour and a sprawling, twisty storyline. But at the centre there's a striking examination of a groundbreaking artist who doesn't want to paint on demand and yet has to in order to pay the bills. And then things get messier when he has to face his critics, the people in the painting. It's clear that Greenaway knows these feelings only too well. And it's also clear that he is fascinated by Rembrandt's life and career, especially since he reunited this cast for a doc-style sequel Rembrandt's J'Accuse a year later.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 2nd November 2007
Distributed by: Kasander Film Company
Production compaines: Bac Films, Kasander Film Company
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 13 Rotten: 4
Cast & Crew
Starring: Martin Freeman as Rembrandt van Rijn, Emily Holmes as Hendrickje, Michael Teigen as Carel Fabritius, Christopher Britton as Rombout Kemp, Agata Buzek as Titia Uylenburgh, Gerard Plunkett as Engelan, Natalie Press as Marieke, Hugh Thomas as Jacob Jorisz, Fiona O'Shaughnessy as Marita, Kevin McNulty as Engelen, Richard McCabe as Bloefeldt, Adrian Lukis as Frans Banning Cocq, Adam Kotz as Willem van Ruytenburgh, Toby Jones as Gerard Dou, Jonathan Holmes as Ferdinand Bol, Harry Ferrier as Carl Hasselburg, Michael Culkin as Herman Wormskerck, Eva Birthistle as Saskia, Andre Schneider as The Model