by Allan Fish
(UK/Netherlands 2007 135m) DVD1/2
A frozen moment of theatre
p Kees Kasander d/w Peter Greenaway ph Reinier van Brummelen ed Karen Porter m Wlodzimierz Pawlik art Maarten Piersma
Martin Freeman (Rembrandt van Rijn), Emily Holmes (Hendrijcke), Eva Birthistle (Saskia), Jodhi May (Geertje), Nathalie Press (Marieke), Adrian Lukis (Frans Banning Cocq), Gerald Plunkett (Engelen), Michael Teigen (Carel Fabritius), Michael Culkin (Herman Wormskerck), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou), Kryzsztof Pieczynski (Jacob de Roy), Agata Buzek (Titia Uylenburgh),
Peter Greenaway hadn’t made a decent film in years. The heady days of the Film Four financed eighties as distant a memory as the Thatcherite years they erupted from. He was always there, though, like a demon that couldn’t be killed, banished into a bottle like a genie. All it ever took was someone to uncork the bottle. That someone had been formulating in his mind for some time, a film not just about the greatest of all Dutch masters but about his most chilling secret.
The time was right, too. Dutch masters were all flavour of the month again after the success of the book and film of The Girl With a Pearl Earring, and while that was more about the artistic process than the artist’s lot, it brought the era back into focus with a never before seen clarity. Simon Schama chipped in with an episode on van Rijn in his masterful The Power of Art, but his focus was largely on another conspiracy, the fate of his ‘Claudius Civilis’ in that most fateful of years, 1666. The ignominy of having to butcher one’s own masterpiece – at least Von Stroheim and Welles didn’t have to perform their hatchet jobs personally, June Mathis and Robert Wise played the role of Judas for them – and the parallel is not lost when one looks at the dimly-lit fragment surviving fragment of that particular masterpiece.
It had been nearly two decades earlier when Rembrandt made his simultaneously biggest splash and slit his own social throat. He accepted a commission to paint the militia of Amsterdam going out on manoeuvres, but he refused to just paint them in rows of lifeless poses looking like the posing ponces they were, but rather as men of action. What Greenaway and his film suggest, however, is a darker intent behind the scenes, with Rembrandt’s self-portrait hidden in the darkness performing an artistic J’Accuse against the subjects, accusing them of the murder of their leader. They can do nothing but let it hang there, but slowly discredit his influence and put him on the long path to poverty.
All of which is balanced against Rembrandt’s boisterous love life, from his wife Saskia to various servant lovers, discussing each to camera as if they weren’t there, and showing the artist as earthy, lusty, guttural. The purists may have been shocked, but Greenaway’s typically minimalist style is perfectly suited to its subject, and while one mourns for the loss of Michael Nyman as accompanist, Pawlik is an able substitute, his rhythms matching the pulse of the film most ably. The photography, likewise, is a treat to look on, not merely pretty but truly Rembrandtian in its composition, taking his mutterings of “miles of painted darkness lit by spasms of light” quite literally.
It should have been a triumphant return, but it was as if Banning Cocq and his conspirators still had hold over the painting’s reception. It took two years for it to finally surface in the UK and US, but those with the necessary impatience had already sought it out on a Russian DVD, lurking in the darkness like an assassin in the night. If the casting seemed typically idiosyncratic, it was inspired. Among the supports Pieczynski’s cynical critic captures the drama as the audience’s devil’s advocate, May is superb as the slutty professional widow, while Birthistle, Press and Holmes all make their mark as the other women in Rembrandt’s life. And holding centre stage, around that ornate bed on wheels, a truly astonishing performance from Martin Freeman as the rebel against the prostitution of his art which may well be the best ever given in a Greenaway film.