“What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.”
Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) deals with the death of his wife Saskia, suffers from bankruptcy, and falls in love with his housemaid (Elsa Lanchester).
While Charles Laughton is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Henry VIII (in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), many believe that his work in this little-seen historical biopic by Korda is even better. Refreshingly, at just 81 minutes long, the episodic Rembrandt doesn’t try to relate every detail of the famed artist’s life: instead, it starts with the death of Rembrandt’s (unseen) wife Saskia, then moves on to chronicle Rembrandt’s financial struggles, his relationship with his sharp-tongued housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence), and his scandalized but loving affair with a housemaid (Lanchester). Korda’s decision not to show Rembrandt’s paintings (with the strategic exception of “The Night Watch” — an essential early plot element) is a wise one; instead, the film’s impressive attention to visual detail (sets, costumes, and props are all stunning) allows us to feel genuinely immersed in Rembrandt’s work-a-day world of 17th century Holland. It’s Laughton’s central performance that really carries the film, however: even when simply reading scripture passages, the world around him literally stands still, and we along with it. While I’m not normally a fan of Hollywood biopics (they tend to take themselves far too seriously, not to mention playing fast and furious with the facts), Rembrandt stands out a notch above the crowd, and remains worthy viewing for all film fanatics.
Note: Theatre fans will be especially gratified to see Gertrude Lawrence in one of her few cinematic appearances; she’s a worthy match for Laughton (as is his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester). Watch also for a nearly unrecognizable performance by Roger Livesey as “Beggar Saul”.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Charles Laughton as Rembrandt
- Elsa Lanchester as Hendrickje
- Gertrude Lawrence as Geertje
- Georges Perinal’s cinematography
- Vincent Korda’s stunning sets
- Fine period detail
Yes, for Laughton’s noteworthy performance.