“Men of the great acting quality of Laughton and [Leslie] Howard are often accused of being themselves at the expense of their parts...[but] a man is often chosen for his first lead because he has the right face and physique for the part: Laughton passed through a series of parts for all of which his physique and remarkable face were of great plastic value. He has great versatility within his own range – Henry VIII, Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Quasimodo, Ginger Ted, Ruggles, all different and yet the same photogenic Laughton mannerisms in all.”The first thing you notice when you watch Alexander Korda’s biopic Rembrandt is how closely Laughton – aided by basic makeup, including an untamed set of whiskers – resembles the great Dutch painter. But the resemblance becomes incidental after a while, as the focus shifts to the actor’s wonderfully subdued performance, several shades away from his scenery-chewing Henry VIII. But then this is a quiet film, different in tone from The Private Life of Henry VIII (also directed by Korda), which played almost like a parody by comparison. (And who could blame it, given its subject matter!)
In Rembrandt, apart from a short scene or two (such as the one where the painter, on a visit to his hometown, briefly regains some of his vigour and even gets into a brawl in a local tavern), the emphasis is on the character’s discontent: his melancholia after his wife’s death and his subsequent relationship, driven by loneliness, with a shrewish housekeeper; his difficulties in dealing with the demands made by the noblemen who commission his work; his struggle with the question of vanity and where it leads an artist ("it's no greater than and no less than when a shoemaker makes a pair of shoes" he says, responding to praise for one of his works); and his nostalgia for (but also inability to return to) his humble roots in a milling family.
This isn’t an exhaustive or well-rounded biography – it’s more like a series of snapshots (if that isn’t an inappropriate word to use in connection with a 17th century painter), starting at a point where Rembrandt, already a highly regarded artist, is in his late 30s. There aren’t many specific insights into his work, apart from an episode where he depicts members of the Civil Guard as posturing buffoons (and, when confronted, tells them “Vanity and stupidity are written all over your faces – the only distinguished things about you are your hats and breastplates”). However, there’s a key scene where he convinces a beggar to pose as King Saul. “You can’t be a good painter then,” the beggar says when approached, “Decent painters paint decent people.” But as he poses, Rembrandt tells him about Saul and David, and the beggar, now dressed as a king, is so moved (by the story of Saul being moved by David’s harp-playing) that he wipes a teardrop from his cheek with a corner of his robe. The shot powerfully connects with the real-life Rembrandt’s painting of Saul and David but it also shows a painter cleverly getting his subject “into character”. A short while later the roles will be reversed, as the beggar tries to playfully teach the artist the tricks of his own trade. (“Look miserable...but not too miserable, or they’ll think you’re past helping. When your right eye waters, let your left eye twinkle, so as they say ‘Look at that fellow, he may be starving but he’s got a merry air’.”)
Another couple of scenes like this, and Rembrandt could have been a really great film. As it stands, it’s a pretty good one. It has depth and feeling, and it’s elegantly shot in black and white; you’d think colour would be a better choice for a movie about a famous painter, but this doesn’t really make a difference, even when there are vivid references to colours, such as Rembrandt imagining what a ruby-red necklace would look like on his wife’s white neck. (Sidenote: watching the beggar-as-Saul scene, a whimsical question popped into my mind. Which is truer to life – a black-and-white photograph, or a realistically coloured painting?)
But dominating everything is the Laughton performance, his fluid face running the gamut of emotions from frustration to quiet pride to sorrow. Incidentally his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester plays Hendrickje, the woman with whom Rembrandt finds love. She’s a fine actress but I always feel a disconnect when I see her playing anything other than the Bride of Frankenstein!