Monday, November 13, 2006


I know nothing about the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt, played here by Charles Laughton, but a quick perusal of an encyclopedia entry tells me that this film is more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, this is a well-acted and nicely shot film, directed by Alexander Korda, who also directed Laughton in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. The episodic film begins with Rembrandt, well known and respected, at the peak of his career and in the midst of working on a portrait of his wife, who is ailing (and whom we never see). As he delivers a long, adoring ode to his wife to his friends in a tavern, he is summoned to her deathbed. At the funeral meal, he continues the painting as though she's still posing. What follows is a series of narrative snapshots from the rest of his life. His long-awaited, gigantic, and expensive painting of the Civic Guard of Amsterdam ("Night Watch") is reviled by the Guard members for making them look undignified. His loyal housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence) becomes his lover, but they cannot marry until his young son comes of age because of a clause in the will of his wife that would leave him bankrupt if he did. He has a beggar (Roger Livesey) pose for a portrait of the biblical Saul. Afraid he's going to lose his house to creditors, he goes back to live in his provincial hometown but feels like a misfit. On his return to Amsterdam, he is struck by the sight of a kitchen maid (Elsa Lanchester), paints her, and ultimately takes her as a lover, igniting Lawrence's wrath. Lanchester figures out a way for him to get around his creditors, who try to claim any new work of his for themselves, by setting up her own gallery of his work which he has given freely to her. By the end of the film, he is aged and alone except for a benefactor who gives him money for food (which he promptly spends on art supplies). The penultimate scene, with Laughton proclaiming, "All is vanity" to a table of carousing youths who have included him in their drinking, is Laughton at his best. The look of the film is painterly, with lots of bright light and vivid textures, apparently meant to conjure up Rembrandt's own technique with light. My favorite moment is Laughton, in a reverie, talking not entirely happily, about the burden of living "in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist." The movie is also worth seeing for Gertrude Lawrence, the actress played by Julie Andrews in STAR! and parodied by Ann Sheridan in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, giving a rare screen performance. [DVD]

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