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The year 1642 marks the turning point in the life of the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt, turning him from a wealthy respected celebrity into a discredited pauper. At the insistence of his pregnant wife Saskia, Rembrandt has reluctantly agreed to paint the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in a group portrait that will later become to be known as The Nightwatch. He soon discovers that there is a conspiracy afoot with the Amsterdam merchants playing at soldiers maneuvering for financial advantage and personal power in, that time, the richest city in the Western World. Rembrandt stumbles on a foul murder. Confident in the birth of a longed-for son and heir, Rembrandt is determined to expose the conspiring murderers and builds his accusation meticulously in the form of the commissioned painting, uncovering the seamy and hypocritical side to Dutch Society in the Golden Age. Rembrandt's great good fortune turns. Saskia dies. Rembrandt reveals the accusation of murder in the painting and the ... Written by
Amazing set design, impassioned acting, but dull and very indulgent.
Highly original, deliberately false, playing loose with fact, frankly sexual, and dry and cold. And not very interesting.
It's fair to say very few people will like this movie, even among those inclined to watch it in the first place, even among fans of the director Peter Greenaway. Luckily, there will be those few who will find it so stylized, startling, offbeat, and intense as to love it. It does suggest something brilliant in the pretty murk it also is. And the actors are performing their hearts out, every one of them pushing their emotional limits within the crisp, dry set designs, which are stiff, symmetrical, and stagey. And beautiful.
There is no question this is an "art" film, highly controlled and aesthetic head to toe. The photography has a kind of studio controlled fluidity, not the moving camera of a steadicam or classic Hollywood, but a steady, slow tracking horizontally inward or sliding sideways. This helps keep the scenes alive, a little, but it also adds to the drone of the whole, since the movement is nearly always the same. In a way, the camera is in synch with the sets, which are also similar in scale and proportion throughout, and symmetrical.
What's it about? Rembrandt and his two wives and one known lover (all compressed into one invented time frame). That's not bad material for a movie, but there is also the political intrigue that Greenaway inserts, a confusing and dull affair with vain attempts to mimic (I think) the drama of the Da Vinci code (the book, not the movie). "Nightwatching" has almost a second plot which comes out of a fantastical reinterpretation of the most monumental of Rembrandt's paintings, "Nightwatch." Greenaway as both writer and director became convinced (or at least wanted to create that impression) that a conspiracy was built into the symbolism of the painting, even a murder. (A second disc in the deluxe DVD edition has a documentary exploring this.) It might have worked, but it's just poorly constructed and the writing is willfully obtuse. amidst the larger sexual and social threads of the main plot, this other idea is an intrusion.
What is missing almost completely in this 2 ¼ hour is any sense of Rembrandt the painter. His personality, his personal life, his apparent rebelliousness are all evident, but the artist, and the art, is missing. The one thing this obsession leads to is some crisp photography of the one painting, and though the shots go by too fast, it's revealing to see up close Rembrandt's rough style, which was more and more at odds with the Dutch tendency for detail (a direction Vermeer typifies a couple decades later).
For people familiar with contemporary theater, this is it on film. It looks great and has passion. But it's just not very interesting. The writing is strained, and the ideas thin. Most of all, it's indulgent. A lot of talent squandered.
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