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 consistent artistic conceit which essentially makes the film a series of living Rembrandt paintings. 

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 ever come.

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 painting.

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 Rembo)


  • * Yellow asterisk: funny (maybe).

  • * White asterisk: expanded format.

  • * Blue asterisk: not mine.

  • No asterisk: it probably sucks.


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