‘Nightwatching’ movie review: Peter Greenaway’s vivid Rembrandt drama

An exhilarating return to form for Peter Greenaway, Nightwatching is easily the cult director’s best film since 1989’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – though, to be fair, outside of an entry in the Tulse Luper saga, I’ve yet to see much of the director’s work in this century, much of which remains unavailable outside of festival screenings. 

Extravagant, stagey, faux-intellectual, and persistently analytical, Nightwatching is, like all of Greenaway’s films, not for everybody. And yet, this story of Rembrandt and his famous painting The Night Watch is unexpectedly touching, and possibly the most accessible film the director has made to date.

Martin Freeman stars as the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, master of a burgeoning household and a happily married expectant father. Wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) urges the painter to do a commissioned group portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia, to which Rembrandt reluctantly agrees. 

Soon a son is born, his wife dies, and Rembrandt discovers a conspiracy among the Militia that has lead to the death of one of their members. Diving deeper into the lives of his subjects, Rembrandt delivers a piece that indicts them in murder and more with every intricate detail. 

Controversy ensues when the Militia cannot simply reject the painting and lend credence to Rembrandt’s claims, but instead seek to settle their score on a more personal level.

It’s all historical poppycock, of course, with Greenaway taking delight in exploring these possible origins of The Night Watch, exemplified in a key exhibition scene in which the painting is deconstructed first by the subjects it portrays, and then by an art critic. 

But the heart of the film lies in biographical exploration of Rembrandt and his relationships with wife Saskia, nursemaid Geertje (Jodhi May), and finally (and most poignantly) mistress Hendrickje (Emily Holmes); while the intricate conspiratorial details occasionally detract from this, they offer their own intellectual rewards. 

It’s like Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code brought to an entirely new level: you may be asking yourself “who cares?” regarding this seemingly irrelevant conspiracy, and well, that’s kinda the point: the painting and its artist have long outlived the relevancy of its subjects and origins.

Freeman (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Good Night) is an absolute revelation as the painter, carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders. Other actors fail to make much of an impression, though the villainous elite are effectively slimy. Toby Jones is wasted in a minor role.

A visually rich experience, magnificent use of light and shadows drenches the film in the palate of Rembrandt, particularly the piece at the focus of the movie; lush cinematography by Reinier van Brummelen is a welcome return to the visual feel of Greenaway films of old.

Beautiful, haunting music by Polish composer Wlodzimierz Pawlik recalls the pulsating Michael Nyman scores that enraptured the director’s best work throughout the 1980s.

A trenchant first hour is occasionally difficult to follow, layered with an abundance of intertwining characters and plotlines. If you can make it past this, however, you’ll be richly rewarded.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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