Nightwatching (2007)

Nightwatching first published by Sight & Sound, April 2010

Review: Like Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway is a cinematic adventurist who for several decades wowed the British arthouse with a succession of challenging and deeply idiosyncratic films, only to slip out of favour and in effect disappear altogether from public awareness. Given that none of his film projects – not even the epic The Tulse Luper Suitcases trilogy (2003-4) – has been released either in UK theatres or for the UK home market in the decade since his 8 ½ Women (1999), Nightwatching represents something of a comeback, although it seems a further sign of his fall from grace that even this film has taken over two years to reach our screens since its 2007 completion.

How appropriate, then, that Nightwatching should focus on an artist who, like Greenaway himself, found his coded, carnivalesque works first winning him approval and then driving him to the margins. In 1642, at the peak of his career, Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (an earthy Martin Freeman) reluctantly agrees to create a group portrait (later known as The Night Watch) of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia, but imports into his picture cryptic clues to the peccadilloes, hypocrisies and even murderous plots of his subjects, so engendering his own ruin – and incidentally inventing a new kind of art that, in its strikingly dramatic postures and its chiaroscuro effects, is a forerunner to cinema itself. 

Here, conversely, Greenaway’s cinema has been styled to resemble no less than a work by the Dutch master. Every scene is staged with overt artifice, lit to accentuate the long shadows, and framed like a tableau vivant (often in imitation of specific paintings), while Rembrandt alone, much like the figure of himself that he concealed in the background of The Night Watch, occasionally looks directly at the viewer (and speaks to camera), uniquely aware that he is an object of both spectacle and narrative. His is a portrait of an artist at work, in love, and in lust – but it also offers a radical reinterpretation of the painting as an allegorical cipher for crimes and conspiracies carried out by the Militia itself, comprising Amsterdam’s cultural, spiritual and economic élites. It is a theory that Greenaway would resume and expand in his next feature, the film essay Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008), which should be viewed with Nightwatching as a diptych. 

This is a work that bears the unmistakable signature of its creator. There are all the usual Greenaway obsessions with witty wordplay, sexual/political power play, and the play of light on a roomful of objects. The idea of art framing murder can be traced all the way back to Greenaway’s feature debut The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), while the character of Marieke (Natalie Press) – the abused orphan befriended on the roof by a ‘nightwatching’ Rembrandt – clearly resembles, in her appearance, her manner of speaking, and her interest in the night sky, the ‘skipping girl’ (Natalie Morse) from Drowning By Numbers (1988). Perhaps, though, the real question is not so much whether Nightwatching represents a return to form for Greenaway, but rather whether such form has any place in today’s cinemas. Nostalgic fans of the director are likely to get exactly what they want from Nightwatching – but for all its experimentation, intellectualism and intricacy, it has little to offer that is new. Perhaps, though, such a criticism is unfair against a film that in fact invites us to look again, with unblinded eyes, at the old.

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Synopsis: Amsterdam, 1642. On behalf of her art-dealing uncle Uylenburgh, Rembrandt’s pregnant wife Saskia proposes to Rembrandt a lucrative commission to paint a group portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia. At first reluctant, Rembrandt is persuaded to take the project on when he meets the man behind the commission, Piers Hasselburg, and his art-loving son Carl. That very night, Saskia gives birth to Titus, and Rembrandt meets Marieke, who tells him stories of abuse and procuring at the orphanage run by one of the painting’s subjects, Rombout Kemp. When Hasselburg is shot dead under mysterious circumstances, Rembrandt is instructed by Frans Banning Cocq, Hasselburg’s successor in the Militia, to continue working on the painting (despite warnings from Uylenburgh to stop) – but as Rembrandt hears more about the shady dealings and illicit relationships of the Musketeers, he decides to bring into his frame precisely the sort of allusive details that his subjects would prefer the picture to conceal. 

Saskia dies after a prolonged illness, and Rembrandt in his grief turns to Titus’ licentious nursemaid Geertje for distraction, only to tire of her. He presents his painting to the Militiamen as a coded accusation of murder, and they set about ruining him financially, and even attempting to have him blinded in the street, as their revenge. Meanwhile he turns his attentions to the young servant Hendrickje, who becomes his new Muse.   

strap: Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt biopic is a portrait of an artist as vigilant observer, conspiracy exposer and figurative avenger  

Anton Bitel