by Dean Duncan
Trot out the adjectives, visually speaking. This is an utterly gorgeous, luminous film. Not just painterly, but really successfully and multiply painterly. Frames, perpendiculars, exquisite balance giving way to different exquisite balances. Props and costumes seem so apt, so familiar and lived in/with. As per usual with Greenaway, these visual clarities come into conflict with narrative and thematic complexity. It’s a compelling combination, and a valid one.
On the other hand, as per usual with Greenaway, it’s all kind of unpleasant. Make that very unpleasant. Some of that unpleasantness is earned; the film intelligently and perceptively considers power and its abuses, and abusive power behaves badly. In this the film goes beyond the level of platitude and self-serving—the specificity, of the thing, both historically and methodologically, is positively Brechtian. And the picture, this detailing of the ways of political oppression, isn’t likely to be very pretty.
On the other hand, on the side of our protagonist (Freeman is revelatory), there’s a Rabelasian component, an earthiness/bawdiness that seems at once really well-researched/historically plausible, and really humanly accurate. After all, the muck of medieval subsistence is still not so terribly far in the past. Unfortunately, this is also, on the side of the apparent good guy, the source of most of the aforementioned unpleasantness. Rembrandt’s efforts come more or less to naught, the which conclusion—remember, the writer/director is telling this particular story for a reason—contains the message of the movie. It’s a practically Buñuelian vision of human perfidy. Is Buñuel so set on the futility of it all? It’s more than that, really. Misanthropy is one thing. Vicious misanthropy might go a bit too far.
Mind you, the conclusion, in which that foreign gentlemen steps out of the frame, enumerates the many facets of Rembrandt’s failure, and then concludes that he was right, has considerable, undiluted power. Near the end of Henry V Prince Hal isn’t sure who won. Are we ever? At the very end of Henry V, not to soon after the historical battle, that stirring victory all falls apart. Maybe not here. It’s kind of thrilling, after being so very dispiriting.