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Rembrandt’s J’Accuse

A scholarly yet broadly accessible illustrated lecture by British auteur Peter Greenaway, "Rembrandt's J'Accuse" is an enthralling docudrama that examines the Dutch master's most famous painting, "The Night Watch," for proof that it was responsible for his dramatic fall from grace.

'Rembrandt's J'Accuse'

A scholarly yet broadly accessible illustrated lecture by British auteur Peter Greenaway, “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” is an enthralling docudrama that examines the Dutch master’s most famous painting, “The Night Watch,” for proof that it was responsible for his dramatic fall from grace. A companion-piece to Greenaway’s “Nightwatching” (2007), pic brims with juicy conspiracy theories and forensic investigations worthy of top-tier TV crime drama. A lengthy fest life is guaranteed, and pic has niche potential in upscale situations. Strong ancillary and specialized tube sales loom. Release in the Netherlands and several other territories is set for Nov. 27.

After publicly declaring cinema dead at the 2007 Pusan Film Festival, Greenaway shows his own stocks to be alive and well with this return to territory he partly covered in “Nightwatching” — a dramatic interpretation of how Rembrandt van Rijn created his 1642 masterpiece.

Taking great care to bring art novices up to speed in record time, Greenaway launches with a snappy overview of the Dutch Golden Age and potted history of “The Night Watch” as its most famous and revolutionary exhibit.

His talking head occupying a small window in the center of frame for much of the duration, Greenaway energetically assumes the roles of art historian and detective, investigating a murder conspiracy he says is depicted in the painting. Always fond of numbers and how images may be read and related to the times in which they were produced, Greenaway methodically works his way through 30 specific parts of the canvas to support his theory.

Central to his argument are the group portrait’s central figures, Capt. Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, powerful members of the 13th Company of the Amsterdam militia whom Rembrandt strongly suspected of arranging the shooting of fellow officer Piers Hasselburg. As Greenaway zeroes in on everything from the rendering of Banning Cocq’s hand to the outmoded weapon carried by van Ruytenburgh, a highly persuasive case is made for Rembrandt indeed portraying the duo as killers. That being the case, Greenaway asserts, Rembrandt so offended his influential patrons that he was effectively blacklisted from moneyed circles from that point onward.

Digging into the lives of everyone represented in the painting, pic occasionally calls upon dramatic re-enactment and direct questioning of behind-the-scenes players including Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia (Eva Birthistle), and loyal maids Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickje (Emily Holmes). Briefly reprising his “Nightwatching” role, Martin Freeman again brings a splendid earthiness to the celebrated painter.

Going so far as to name the trigger man, Greenaway’s information-packed script is cohesive and frequently very witty.

Dramatic material is beautifully lit and framed to resemble Dutch paintings of the era, and the many mysteries are kept bubbling by precise editing of the helmer’s trademark split-screens and multipanel visuals. A score darting effectively from crime-thriller stings to moody mystery arrangements completes a top-notch tech package.

Rembrandt’s J’Accuse


  • Production: A Content Intl. (U.K.) presentation of a Submarine (Netherlands) production, in association with Kasander, VPRO, WDR, YLE, in association with ARTE France. (International sales: Content, London.) Produced by Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix. Co-producer, Kees Kasander. Directed, written by Peter Greenaway.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Reinier van Brummelen; editor, Elmer Leupen; music, Giovanni Sollima, Marco Robino; production designer, Maarten Piersma; costume designer, Marrit van der Burgt; sound (Dolby Digital), Bram Boers. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (World Cinema), Oct. 4, 2008. (Also in Rome Film Festival, Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 90 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Peter Greenaway, Martin Freeman, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Michael Tiegen, Nathalie Press. (English dialogue)
  • Music By: