One of the most famous paintings by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is "The Night Watch," a dark-hued painting filled with richly, colourfully dressed soldiers.
Well, no matter how brilliant they are, most paintings don't end up inspiring movies -- but Peter Greenaway does a pretty brilliant job with "Nightwatching," a semi-fictionalized version of how Rembrandt came to paint it. The "hidden coded message" subplot is a bit awkward, but Greenaway's brilliance shines in how exquisite the movie is -- he wraps the movie in lush, light-soaked beauty, and Rembrandt becomes a very real person.
When his smart, independent wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) gets pregnant, Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is called upon to paint an Amsterdam Civil Guard -- he doesn't want to, but reluctantly agrees under the condition that he gets nine months ("(It takes that long to make a baby; it will certainly take that long to make a painting") and chooses the setup. Meanwhile, Saskia gives birth to a healthy baby but becomes ill herself (which frustrates her lusty husband).
In fact, Saskia becomes more sickly as the painting goes on -- and when she dies, Rembrandt's closeness to Titus' nursemaid Geertje (Jodhi May) and maidservant Hendrickje (Emily Holmes) becomes quite different. And his straightforward commission is complicated by the sudden death of a young officer, which reveals a seedy clot of sex, blackmail and corruption. He can't reveal these things in the open, but he can weave them into "The Night Watch."
Rich draperies, misty forests, torch-waving brigades in a darkened bedroom, high windows filled with pale sunlight, vast empty rooms, smoky kitchens, and the pale angelic face of a dead young woman -- "Nightwatching" is a bit like seeing a painting in motion. And Peter Greenaway gives the movie a very unique flavor -- most of the interior scenes look like they were filmed on theatrical stage sets, with limited camera angles and soft glowing light falling from above. It works gloriously.
In fact, the only directorial aspect that falls flat is when Rembrandt breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience about how he met and married Saskia. Come on, no talking to the camera!
Not that this movie is all ethereal beauty -- there's lots of bawdy, earthy humor, sensuality (Geertje posing nude for her lover) and a wicked sense of humour, such as Rembrandt lampooning various stuffy military portraits. But the tone becomes darker as the plot winds on, and we start to see what is up with the ethereal, broken teenage girl who wanders onto rooftops to talk to Rembrandt. Throughout it all, there's the feeling that Greenaway has turned dusty history into vibrant flesh-and-blood realism.
Freeman is absolutely amazing as Rembrandt -- selfish, passionate, loving, rebellious, foul-mouthed, volatile and vibrant, a man who lives every moment to the full. You might not actually like to know the guy, but Freeman does make him seem entirely real. And you end up liking him despite his weird mood swings -- as Saskia lies dying, he weeps pitifully into her lap; after she dies, he's seen tersely telling her "Bloody get up!" because he can't cope without her.
And Birthistle, May and Holmes make a solid trio of women of women who shared Rembrandt's bed and life. The first two are especially great: Birthistle particularly is smart, gutsy and Rembrandt's equal in every way, while May serves as a capable, down-to-earth seductress who winds her way into Rembrandt's affections after Saskia's death. And Natalie Press is eerily haunting as the tragic servant girl Marieke.
"Nightwatching" is literally pretty as a picture, but it also has a solid plot with plenty of period earthiness to keep it grounded. Peter Greenaway really outdid himself with this one.