In look and tone, “Nightwatching” reps a return to the Peter Greenaway style of old, though whether it’s a return to form is another matter. Visually an expectedly rich affair, the baroque helmer’s take on the enigmatic painting “The Night Watch” is played out on theatrical sets enhanced by celestial lighting, where Rembrandt’s middle period becomes a series of tableaux of love, lust and fear. Knowing what to emphasize, however, occasionally slips through Greenaway’s grasp, and power remains largely in the art direction. Fans should be partly satisfied, and biz superior to “Tulse Luper,” though distribution will still be limited.
Given Greenaway’s enduring exploration of images both as independent identities and bridges to other realms, it’s unsurprising that he’s latched on to a painting like “The Night Watch,” not just because it’s the best-known example of his beloved Dutch Golden Age, but also thanks to the composition’s seemingly inscrutable action.
Revolutionary in how it presents a group of men (and two incongruous girls, or dwarves) not as bold, static nobles but in a cacophony of poses and movement, the painting lends itself to historical leaps of imagination, and Greenaway plunges right in.
At pic’s start, Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is a successful artist, master of a bustling household. He’s married to the intelligent Saskia (Eva Birthistle), initially a business match that has grown into a genuine love affair.
Among the servants, two are especially close to the masters: Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes).
When Saskia gets pregnant, Rembrandt accepts a commission to paint the members of an Amsterdam Civil Guard, headed by Capt. Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis). Soon, one of their members, Piers Hasselburg (Andrzej Seweryn), is killed, supposedly by an accidental musket shot. As Rembrandt discovers more about the decadent, power-hungry men he’s painting, he suspects murder.
Digging deeper, he uncovers Banning Cocq’s crush on co-conspirator Willem van Ruytenburgh (Adam Kotz) and, thanks to the half-fantastic tales of young Marieke (Natalie Press), learns the orphanage under the Guard’s protection has been turned into a child brothel.
Rembrandt uses his painting as a covert condemnation of his patrons; when it’s unveiled, they’re furious.
The “hidden meaning of paintings” is obviously the theme du jour, though Greenaway’s take is infinitely more intellectual than anything Dan Brown could ever dream up. In reality, the conspiracy is less important than the painter himself: Rembrandt is captured in all his joyful, bawdy, self-analyzing ways, prey to passions and capable of real love.
Freeman, best known for the U.K. series “The Office,” is just the man, inhabiting the foul-mouthed, lusty artist and making him believable rather than theatrical. Birthistle and May are also standouts, rising to the challenge of being flesh and blood amid the stagecraft.
Non-English thespers are less successful, made to recite long, explanatory dialogue that’s difficult to decipher under the thick accents. Multitude of players gets lost as Greenaway seems uncertain which elements to focus on at what moment, leaving a disjointed sense that’s not helped by a choppy feel for time’s passing.
He has, however, returned to the raucous, witty sense of humor that characterized his earlier works, and there’s a zest for life in almost every frame, a quality sorely lacking in more recent efforts.
Best of all is the production design: Sets are stripped down to their bare essentials while still retaining the unmistakable stamp of the classic Dutch interior. As in the paintings of the era, light is meticulously placed, throwing sharp, defined beams and cutting through the peripheral shadows like a revelatory divine instrument.
Colors, too, are rich, including the famed Dutch blacks, and the excellent 35mm transfer results in a far lusher look than was seen in the “Tulse Luper” projects. Greenaway’s unerring feel for music is another plus, the Nyman-like soundtrack full of insistent ascending and descending chords.