Venice International Film Festival

VENICE, Italy -- There are said to be 51 mysteries in Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn's masterpiece "The Night Watch" and British writer and director Peter Greenaway sets out to explain all of them in his richly detailed but lumbering and theatrical drama "Nightwatching."

Most of the scenes are interiors with performers facing the camera with Martin Freeman portraying Rembrandt as a very talkative and lecherous 17th century English fashion photographer or film director. There's lots of male and female frontal nudity and a lexicon of filthy words as the artist expresses himself with his beloved wife and then two successive lovers.

It's doubtful that the film could be used in schools and the cloistered art history lesson, screened in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, is likely to fall on deaf ears anywhere beyond festivals and the occasional art house.

The 1642 painting was supposed to be the usual thing of the day featuring city bigwigs posing as the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in a group portrait. But the artist discovered scurrilous things about the pompous merchants involving child prostitution and murder, and he used the painting to make a public accusation.

Greenaway takes plenty of time establishing the characters who will be involved in the painting although it's not always clear which is which. It is apparent that bad things are happening at an orphanage where a rich man named Rombout Kemp (Christopher Britton) and his acolytes use the young girls for sexual favors. One of them, Marieke (Nathalie Press), shows up on Rembrandt's roof one day claiming to be an angel but she's there to tell the sorry story of her sisters.

Meanwhile, there's a murder at a gathering of the merchants playing at being militia and Rembrandt becomes increasingly outraged at the cover-up. He determines to reveal all in his commissioned painting.

He is an unmade bed of a man who adores his doomed but fatalistic wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and grieves mightily when she dies. At hand, however, is a servant named Geertje (Jodhi May), whose vivid sensuality soon has him captivated, followed by the more sedate but equally responsive Hendrickje (Emily Holmes).

There are 34 people in the painting and all of them show up at Rembrandt's door to pose, beseech, complain or threaten. Each scene is presented as on a stage, even the exteriors, and the impact is claustrophobic. Birthistle, May and Holmes perform bravely and so does Freeman although his Rembrandt sounds a bit too much like someone from a British TV sitcom.

Aria Films, Bac Films
Director, writer: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael, Grzegorz Hajdarowicz, Larry Sugar
Director of photography: Reinier van Brummelen
Production designer: Maarten Piersma
Music: Wlodek Pawlik
Co-producers: Carlo Dusi, Christine Haebler, Piotr Mularuk
Costume designers: Jagna Janicka, Marrit van der Burgt
Editor: Karen Porter
Rembrandt van Rijn: Martin Freeman
Hendrickje: Emily Holmes
Geertje: Jodhi May
Saskia: Eva Birthistle
Gerard Dou: Toby Jones
Marieke: Nathalie Press
Carel Fabritius: Michael Teigen
Rombout Kemp: Christopher Britton
Banning Cocq: Adrian Lukas
Willem van Ruytenburgh: Adam Kotz
Bloefeldt: Richard McCabe
Engelen: Kevin McNulty
Egremont: Maciej Zakoscielny
Running time -- 134 minutes
No MPAA rating