Written and directed by Peter Greenaway
The titles gave a warning. Public funding from Wales (Greenaway was born in Newport), Poland, The Netherlands, UK film council, so not a lot of commercial pressure to turn a profit there. The premise is good. 17th century artists filled their pictures with symbols and clues about their subjects. The Nightwatch by Rembrandt is a picture of Dutch militia men, and the story is that Rembrandt reveals their characters, evil deeds and the murder of one of their members in a painting the militiamen commissioned and paid 100 guilders per head to be in. So far an excellent plot line. The story involves all the characters in the painting. The little girl left of centre is a major character, working in a child brothel owned by one of the militia. She’s a lot taller / older in the film (but Freeman as Rembrandt talks about changing size in a painting for effect). She can just about be seen to be holding a pewter jug, and it turns out this is a reference to the brothel owner deliberately scalding her sister’s face (the sister being glimpsed behind). Yes, it’s pushing the interpretation just a tad, as according to most sources she’s holding the militia’s ceremonial goblet.
Greenaway’s colour and lighting makes much (but not all) of it look like a dusty, shadowy 17th century painting. It conceals cheap sets too. The trouble is that the whole is written as a stage play. This is theatre on film, not a film. The speeches and the acting style lend themselves to theatre and he illustrates an overblown 17th century stage performance mid film. This could be a clever dig at himself, but more likely a Shakespeare-aping conceit. Add in a long, long, no, interminable speech at the end, about how everyone is an actor. Martin Freeman, as Rembrandt, would get standing ovations as the curtains drew back on stage, but this is supposed to be a film, not a play. It was revealing to see the painter stage scenes in his studio with people dressed up, and funny to see an actor in the background get down off the cross when the tea break was called. This was supposed to be a nativity with Rembrandt’s newborn son wheeled on to feature, so why there was a cross in the background is puzzling. Puzzling, but a deliberate bit of fun, as in the same scene a stout Protestant Dutchman is told he’s a Roman soldier and protests that “I’m not playing a Roman Catholic!’
The Nightwatch, Rembrandt 1642
The dialogue writing is generally weak though. Oh, how we chuckle when characters talk about “Now we’re living in the modern world of the 17th century when women can smoke and wear spectacles.” Later a heavily accented character says “It was raining cats and dogs.” Granted, only foreigners ever use idioms like that, so it has to be a reference to his foreigness, but if so, it has to be delivered with a hint of smugness and self-satisfaction at knowing such idiomatic stuff. It wasn’t. It came across as the line that was written, straight. We can readily believe that 17th century Amsterdam was a cosmopolitan crossroads with many foreign-accented people around, and Holland had only recently freed itself from Spanish domination. I watched this the day after the Spain / Netherlands World Cup Final, so that point resonated. We know from recent research that General Custer’s 7th Cavalry at The Battle of Little Big Horn were mainly very recent Irish and German immigrants, so the battlefield would have resounded to shouts of Achtung! and Begorrah! as the Sioux scalped them. So there’s no problem in having French and Spanish and Polish accents in Amsterdam. Except that they readily betray that the Polish deal (and locations) had Greenaway use Polish actors in some roles. Peter Brooke uses a variety of foreign accents in a Shakespeare play as a deliberate device. Maybe Greenaway has the same theory, but the result is the last five minutes with a long explanatory speech from a minor character, done in a dreadful accent. The thing is, you can have non-native speakers showing their accent and acting well, because their stress and intonation is good. The guy doing this part speaks grammatically perfect English with no idea whatsoever about the stress, intonation and rhythm of the language. I have met senior professors of English with the same affliction, but they’re mainly from an older generation. It’s far harder to listen to perfect grammar with bad stress and intonation than it is to follow shaky grammar with good stress and intonation. In this case, the actor simply can’t act in English.
Another Greenaway pattern is having modern English speech and gesture in the 16th century, which is fair enough. I don’t see why historical Dutch characters should wander about speaking cod Shakesperean English, and Rembrandt effs and blinds with abandon. There were a couple of points where I thought the adjectives were shoved into the line in the wrong places though, and ‘For fuck’s sake!’ does sound disconcertingly current, and jars in a way the other swearing doesn’t. The other thing that jars is two bits, both amusing and well-acted, where Freeman addresses the camera close-up in character, one with his wife doing facial reactions beside him. Freeman was Tim in The Office which used the device of actors making asides or explaining themselves to camera. No one in Britain can watch that without thinking “Oh, that’s Tim from The Office.’ It must be deliberate jokey referencing, especially as Freeman instantly becomes more Tim-like, but it jars the relation with the world on screen. If it’s not jokey, then it’s deeply misguided.
Where the film goes badly wrong is that at about 110 minutes, his wife’s died, we’ve finished the painting, had the militia’s reaction to it, and effectively wrapped up the murder plot. There’s a scene where someone sits at a table and explains the reason behind the plot and its execution to Rembrandt. This is a classic scene from an instructive book I’ve been reading, How Not To Write A Novel. It’s the Agatha Christie explanation. Never do it unless you’re Agatha Christie or sending up Christie. I’ll concede that Greenaway might be. So that’s it, you think, time to go. (At last.) But then there’s another thirty minutes, which seems to consist mainly of Rembrandt rolling around naked without a lot of plot reference. OK, he falls in love with his servant and that’s part of the plot, but before that he takes up with “A soldier’s widow” and has elaborate sex scenes which apparently don’t advance the story or character. It reminded me of a director on one of our videos who kept insisting that a female character should open the door in a short near transparent nightie The producer and I explained to him that it was an educational video, and there was no chance of it happening. He threw a tantrum. It then dawned on everyone that basically he wanted to film the actress in a short transparent nightie for his own gratification. I thought the same here. A lot of nakedness in the film was part of the plot, with Rembrandt being beaten and stripped etc, as well as love scenes. But at least 75% of the nakedness in the last thirty minutes was the director making his own light-porno film with no reference. Supposedly, the last thirty minutes show the consequences Rembrandt suffered from the reactions of those portrayed in the picture.
In the end, in spite of the solid plot idea, the film is confusing, badly scripted at times, well-acted in the main roles, appallingly acted in others, has some good use of colour. The chief fault for me is incoherent narrative thread.
Greenaway made a subsequent documentary Rembrant: J’accuse which follows the theme, including a detailed analysis of the picture. I haven’t seen it, but Nightwatching succeeded to the point where I’d want to.