Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) is now acclaimed as perhaps the greatest artist in oils of all time, but when he was alive that was not the case, as he was regarded as an unconventional figure who died virtually penniless for it took quite some time for his genius to be recognised – now no millionaire in the world would have as much money as all his paintings cost should they be sold. We join him in 1642 as he is reluctant to accept the duty of painting the Civic Guard, but since he wants to buy jewellery for his beloved wife Saskia he is forced to accept; however, she is a very sick woman and not even the powerful love her husband has for her will be enough to save her…
You could tell from that opening ten minutes this was not taking the usual biopic stance that you start before the subject is a success and the build up to that point, for director Alexander Korda chose a different tack, beginning when Rembrandt was at the height of his fame when living then winding down to the end of his life. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why this failed to catch on with the public in the same way Korda and Laughton’s previous collaboration The Private Life of Henry XIII did, it wasn’t just the title lacking in monarch-based sauciness, it was more to do with the perceived lack of oomph to the high culture you would be in for. No matter that this was no dry, textbook account when the star was unquestionably at his very best, it was simply a tough sell.
Even if you did give it a go, there were few of the laughs Laughton’s performance as King Henry provided, as a more melancholy tone was unavoidably present given the rather tragic life Rembrandt lived, what with the people he most loved having a habit of dying. You could see echoes of this in Mike Leigh’s more controversial biopic Mr. Turner, though that was more of a hit than this was in its day, that sense that a serious artist has to negotiate a hefty degree of heartache to truly be judged great, though Laughton’s painter seemed more of a friendlier prospect for socialising. Korda, one of the most influential figures in moulding the British film industry, knew what the star’s strengths were, and therefore made certain to include scenes of him relating speeches in his rich, characterful tones.
Often these were the best reasons to keep watching, as Laughton, reined in by the sombre qualities of his role, offered some moving readings and observations thanks to his marvellously delivered lines: he really did come across as a man with an artistic soul, far more than anyone around him. His relationship to women was important to that demeanour, though we never see Saskia, nor any of his paintings of her (perhaps because by 20th century standards she looked more like Laughton than the beauty she is talked up as by the script), but his adoration of her makes an impact in that introduction, all the way through to his romantic partnership to maid Hendrickje Stoffels (they never married). She was played by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester, a woman he had a complicated connection to as they stayed together until he died, but for sexual satisfaction they each would pair off with men of their choosing.
Maybe someone should make a film of their marriage, they were very unconventional people. The other lady in Rembrandt’s life was Geertje Dirx, of interest because this was a rare film appearance by stage legend Gertrude Lawrence, here not too cheerful but forceful in her presence as her housekeeper role saw her bitter at devoting so much time to the artist for very little reward or even heed of her advice. As for the art, we only saw the unveiling of The Night Watch, possibly his most famous work, and the film underlined the poignancy that it is now accepted as a masterpiece yet was lambasted at the time by the public who didn’t understand it, not least because they didn’t understand the turmoil Rembrandt was going through after the death of his wife. So while pleasingly designed, this was not the most uplifting of films about art, though puts us in the privileged position of sympathising with a brilliant man not always regarded as such in his lifetime, but that was sad too. Music by Geoffrey Toye.
[Network's DVD captures much of the attractive, moody photography, and has a gallery as an extra - but not that kind of gallery.]