4 June 2011 | dimplet
A great, forgotten gem that deserves remastering and reissuing
Perhaps the finest performance of Charles Laughton's remarkable career, you almost feel you are looking at the real Rembrandt.
Laughton delivers several soliloquies that that help to convey the philosophical side of Rembrandt, and the ideas shine like diamonds. A year before, in Ruggles of Red Gap, as a British valet in America, Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address to some bar patrons, and it was the highlight of that wonderful film. In both films, his delivery is more natural, sincere and moving than even Laurence Olivier.
I have long been an admirer of Rembrandt and the Dutch school of that period, being of Dutch-French descent. The set design and cinematography is truly extraordinary, with scene after scene looking like they stepped out of an old Dutch painting, they are so authentic and beautifully composed. You have the feeling cinematographer Georges Périnal would have loved to have been a photographer in 1600s Holland. Any gripe that it was not actually filmed in Holland is pointless; while there are many old buildings, including Rembrandt's Amsterdam home, still standing, 1936 Holland was no longer 1636 Holland.
Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife, fits perfectly the role of a Dutch peasant servant girl. The viewer might follow this by watching Witness for the Prosecution, which again pairs Laughton and Lanchester much later in their careers, when their performances had fallen into a well worn -- or should I say finely polished -- groove.
Gertrude Lawrence's performance seems a bit overwrought. She was a great stage actress who did not appear in many films, so this is a rare opportunity to see her.
I was once in the Metropolitan admiring one of his paintings when two middle aged women walked up; one peered at the small brass plaque bearing the artist's name, announced to the other: "It is by someone named van Rijn," and they both walked off. Well, I, at least, knew who "van Rijn" was, but I didn't, actually. I didn't know the person.
This movie gives me a feeling of the man behind the paintings, and it is different from what I had imagined. You feel Rembrandt was a Rodney Dangerfield of artists, which may have been exaggerated. You also see an artist who wants to paint real people, and who loves the country life more than the city, which matches his paintings. You see a person with deep understanding of people, life, philosophy, an understanding that informs his art works, and which is the source of his true greatness, beyond his great technique.
But like any "non-fiction" movie, you wonder how much is completely true. But if this prompts you to read up on his life, then who is to complain?
When I first glanced at this, I dreaded encountering a rickety old horse, but was utterly surprised. The script and storyline are finely crafted; the encounter with the beggar when Rembrandt is in dire straights, himself, provides an unusual degree of insight through the fine writing. This is a wordy film, but the words say something.
I am at the point where I don't often run into old gems I haven't seen. Rembrandt is a fine film with artistic and historic merit, but it desperately needs digital remastering to restore the beauty the black and white photography must once have had. I don't think you could remake this film with more beautiful cinematography or a greater lead performance than delivered by Charles Laughton.