“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
In 1642, Rembrandt is at the height of his fame when his adored wife suddenly dies and his work takes a dark turn that offends his patrons. Devoting himself entirely to his painting, he faces both bankruptcy and the scorn of society when he takes up with a pretty maid. .
Biographical films can often be problematic – they may well capture the chronology and details of a subject, but rarely do they capture that essential quality that makes that subject a source of our fascination. Rarely too, can a film concerned with art become a work of art in itself. Alexander Korda‘s Rembrandt is the exception.
Focusing on the last 27 years of the master painter’s life, Rembrandt gives us not only a perspective into the life and times of the artist, but also a marvelous insight into the poetic mind of the man himself. Charles Laughton‘s portrayal of Rembrandt van Rijn avoids any need to glorify or mythologise, but rather deeply concentrates on the humanity of his character and the unyielding integrity of his art. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the artist himself, Laughton lights up the screen with his soulful ruminations about the nature of life, women, social status, success, and his struggles between vision and reality. So complete is this immersion in character, by the time this beautiful and tender film ends, it is difficult to tell of any separation between the two great artists – Laughton and Rembrandt.
Under the masterful eye of Alexander Korda, Rembrandt’s world is brilliantly staged – Georges Périnal’s cinematography paints the artist’s struggles on the screen in such vivid black and white that it almost captures the luminosity of a canvas by Rembrandt himself. The costumes, locations and set design, though all executed through the limitations the studio system of the day, still contribute to a film of the rarest quality. The supporting cast too, including Elsa Lanchester as Hendrickje, Rembrandt’s maid who also became his lover and Roger Livesey as the beggar who was the model for Rembrandt’s painting of King Saul, are just perfection. Rembrandt is so much more than a film about a famous artist, it brilliantly achieves an atmosphere of clarity and of soul that is worthy of the authentic nature of the man himself.