It’s been hard to forgive Peter Greenaway, above all, for the howling miscreant-ism of “8 1/2 Women” (1999). His particularized brand of hyper-structural art cinema — and Greenaway’s movies have always been stylistically distinctly his, which is no mean achievement — had already been in self-involved decline (“The Pillow Book,” etc.), but “8 1/2 Women” was a cliff edge, a film beyond which any globally respected career would have to take a good stoning, creep shamefacedly into a crawlspace somewhere and work on a sensibility overhaul while hoping we’d soon forget all about it. Greenaway has more or less hibernated since — a short here or there, and beginning in 2003 he churned out four connected features known as “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” that saw only festival screens, and went unreleased everywhere.
I still appreciate Greenaway, even if his movies are sometimes unbearable — his obviously honest compulsion to construct intricate Erector Set narrative contraptions, and his serious passion for such unfashionable things as history and fine art are endearing. “Nightwatching” (2007), then, is good news — a return to form and a full-on historical-riff epic, tricked out in Greenaway’s trademarked proscenium-tableau style (itself an inheritance from Renaissance art), exploring the vagaries and political labyrinth of Rembrandt’s life during the Dutch Golden Age. But, like Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), it’s centered on proposing and solving a mystery — Rembrandt’s landmark painting “The Nightwatch,” being a centuries-long source of conjecture and rereadings, is “solved” here as a literal j’accuse in regards to the murder of one of its subjects before the painting was finished.
In Greenaway’s view, Rembrandt (a robust and saucy Martin Freeman, probably best known for “The Office”) had little more than disdain for the Dutch aristocrats he was commissioned to paint, and so once he became embroiled with the Amsterdam Militia (more of a landowner men’s club than an actual militia in the mid-1600s), and realized that their captain’s death by gunshot wasn’t an accident, he contrived to load the group portrait he was paid to finish with clues, clues that have stood in the passage of time as odd enigmas in what was supposed to be a standard rich-man’s-genre painting of the period.
Greenaway captures the Rembrandt lighting and decor like no one else could ever, and his languid, big-boned visual energy is still hypnotic. And as always, Greenaway can be fabulously long-winded, and “Nightwatching” is for the most part entertainingly gabby, with the actors (including Jodhi May, Toby Jones and Natalie Press) tucking into their blocks of dialogue as if they were venison steaks. (Freeman has a spellbinding moment in which, while he’s discussing a painting, he offhandedly massages an infant’s gums with his pinkie.) But “Nightwatching” isn’t by itself completely satisfying — the mystery of “The Nightwatch” that Greenaway has used to restructure history isn’t exactly in the foreground. The film endeavors instead to explore Rembrandt’s character, as a hedonist and fading art-world power and womanizer, a familiar project that is inevitably less seductive than solving a 400-year-old murder with one of the world’s most famous paintings.
Luckily, Greenaway has it both ways — a second disc in the DVD set holds “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” (2008), an elaborate, tumescent documentary retracing the other film’s case but doing it via Greenaway’s direct address, genuine museum visits, film clips, digital layering and a college year’s worth of cultural erudition. Greenaway goes over the painting questionable detail by detail, contextualizing it within the era, and does so with an Oxford don’s authority. The mystery holds up, and together the two films are a fascinating diptych and a rousing case made for the relevance and allure of history, in a modern world where, too often, last year is too long ago to remember.