Nightwatching is the latest film from the highbrow auteur Peter
Greenaway, in which he delves into the mystery of Rembrandt's fall
from grace in later life.
The Dutch master was on top of the world at age 36. He had a clever
wife, a prosperous painting business, a prominent house, many pupils,
a new son, and a reputation as a genius, which seems to have been
solidified by The Night Watch, his largest (12'x14') work, and an
acknowledged masterpiece of group portraiture.
Within one year, however, his wife would die and his fortunes would
begin an inexorable decline. Various explanations have been given for
the turnabout: despair over his wife's death, the pernicious influence
of his new nanny/lover, a change in the public's taste toward the
lighter Italian style, a foolishly large mortgage on his house, and so
forth. This film acknowledges the effect of some of those factors, but
layers them in with a hypothetical mystery surrounding The Night
Watch. As the script would have it, the painting was Rembrandt's "J'accuse"
against a group of important burghers, and he hid all sorts of
political messages within the characters and objects in the painting.
In so doing, he so offended so many prominent citizens that they banded together in
resolve to destroy their cocky accuser. It's historical fiction. While none of this story is
known to be true, neither is it in contradiction of the known facts.
The themes may sound too austere and erudite to appeal to you, but Nightwatching is possibly
the most accessible film Greenaway has ever made. For one thing, he
does not subordinate the narrative structure to his personal
obsessions, as he so often has in the past. Although the
narrative is rich with details, perhaps unnecessarily so, the basic
story is straightforward. For another thing, the casting of comic
actor Martin Freeman as Rembrandt, and the device of allowing Freeman
to deliver casual monologues to the camera, allows the audience to
build up an easy identification with the character. As Martin portrays
him, Rembo was a down-to-earth fellow with a big heart, big
appetites, and a developed sense of justice. This portrayal of
Rembrandt as a ordinary guy with an extraordinary gift is analogous to
the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus, and Freeman's down-to-earth
portrayal of the painter significantly mitigates Greenaway's inherent
tendency toward pretentiousness.
Of course this is a Greenaway film so it is not a superficial
Hollywood-style biography. Several minutes of running time are taken
up by people commenting on The Night Watch, which allows Greenaway to
provide lessons on the significant political and artistic issues
surrounding the painting in the context of the time from which it sprung. Is that
good or bad? It depends on just how much you really care about the
minute details of the case which links Rembrandt's hidden messages to
the decline in his career. I would have preferred a top-line summary
rather than a line-by-line explanation, but I'm more of a mainstream
filmgoer and this film is intended for a more aesthetic crowd. I suspect,
however, that even the dedicated aficionados of art history will think
''too much info" at one time or another in the punctilious exposition.
That, however, is my only reservation about the film. It is neither
as emotional nor as entertaining as Amadeus, but it has emotion and
entertainment, and also succeeds on several other levels, particularly
in Greenaway's usual mastery of visual composition. This time
Greenaway has used his artistic eye to recreate the look and feel of
Rembrandt's paintings, not just when the characters are posing for
Rembrandt, but basically all the time, as if to say that Rembrandt was
accurately representing his cultural reality with his claustrophobic
and cluttered representations of group gatherings. I don't know whether that is
true, or even whether it is reasonable, but it is employed as a
conceit which essentially makes the film a series of living Rembrandt
I have often admired Peter Greenaway's films, but this is one of
the few I have actually enjoyed. It's a bit too long and detailed, but
it is brilliant in the ways that Greenaway's films are always
brilliant, and also more heartfelt and conversational than usual, as
if Greenaway had learned to talk to his audience rather than lecturing
to them. It's still not a commercial film, but it's the closest he has
This link contains:
1. A complete synopsis of the film as written by Greenaway and his
associates, including an extremely detailed outline of the mysteries of the
2. A very large .jpg of the painting which you can study.
3. 24 captures from the film which illustrate the way in which Greenaway
captured the feel of Rembrandt's work on his own cinematic canvas.
4. A lengthy interview with Greenaway.
Highly recommended if you are interested in the film!
Nudity (lower frontals from everyone, as well as from Martin Freeman as