An exquisitely directed and photographed historical biopic about the celebrated Dutch painter, REMBRANDT reunited Charles Laughton and director Alexander Korda after the success of their previous collaboration, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1933). Like that film, REMBRANDT is less concerned with being a highly-detailed biography of the man, instead capturing the spirit and conveying the essence of the artist and his work. Its depiction of its subject is more introspective, less bawdy than HENRY VIII, with Laughton's contemplative performance conveying a quiet intensity. By depicting key moments in Rembrandt's life, his public and private triumphs and tragedies, Korda crafts an evocative portrait of a man driven by his need to create, even when that need has left him penniless and destitute.
The screenplay -- by Carl Zuckmayer and June Head -- follows Rembrandt's personal and creative struggles that begin when he expresses his contempt for the wealthy patrons who have commissioned him to paint a group portrait. This is followed shortly by the death of his wife, which leaves him emotionally shattered. As his debts mount, and his relationship with his new lover, Geertje, falls apart, Rembrandt retreats into his art. His only support in the house comes from his youngest son, Titus, who dreams of being a great artist like his father. However, both Rembrandt and Geertje admonish him from pursuing this dream, pointing to Rembrandt's own failures as evidence of the fruitlessness of an artistic career.
There is a poignant irony to the sequence in which Rembrandt hires a beggar off the street to pose as a king for his latest painting, a session which is interrupted by Geertje's shrill insistence that Rembrandt go to the Prince to apply for a grant to subsidize his lifestyle. Rembrandt and the beggar go to the palace gates, whereupon the unfortunate man teaches the proud artist the most effective methods of begging for coins. When Rembrandt finally secures a coin for himself, he gives it away to another unfortunate soul.
A transformative moment occurs when Rembrandt, in need of some time away from the city and from his family, goes to stay at his father's mill in his hometown, where he is confronted with the fact that he no longer belongs there. He visits a tavern, and his advances to an attractive young local girl are met with hostility by the other men, who resent Rembrandt's returning to town after having abandoned them years earlier, and accuse him of an unwarranted sense of superiority.
Following this incident, Rembrandt struggles with carrying heavy bags of grain to the top of his father's mill. When he becomes short-winded after making it only halfway up the stairs, his father and brother look upon him with disdain, and he realizes it is time for him to return to Amsterdam. The artist is an eternal outsider, out of place in the life he has made for himself, and unable to return to the one he left behind.
The experience marks a turning point in Rembrandt's life. Upon returning to Amsterdam, he strikes up a romance with the new maid, Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester, in a brilliant performance), who expresses an interest in Rembrandt's art, and he comes to see her as a kindred spirit. When he announces his plans to marry Hendrickje, it sends Geertje into a fit of rage, bringing charges against the poor woman that lead to her being excommunicated from the church. Still, Hendrickje is a loyal and supportive lover, quick-witted and courageous, and it is with her that Rembrandt finds true happiness.
Happiness is fleeting however, and before their marriage is to be finalized, events take a tragic turn when Hendrickje dies from illness, and with her dies Rembrandt's hopes for the future. We last see the great artist as a greying, broken down old man, wandering the streets in search of food. He is taken to an inn by a group of young aristocrats out for a good time, who view him as little more than a funny old man, and treat him to food and drink in exchange for amusing them with his stories. However, when they realize who their guest is, they are hushed with awe. Given a small subsidy to help pay for food, Rembrandt immediately takes the money to a local merchant, where he spends it on a new set of paints, so that he can continue to indulge his need to create -- his greatest source of satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
Artistically, REMBRANDT succeeds as one of Alexander Korda's finest productions, certainly one of the best that he personally directed. There is imaginative lighting and camera movement by the great cinematographer Georges Perinal, and brother Vincent Korda's set designs create a strong sense of period detail and atmosphere. As with Alexander Korda's other historical films, its greatest strength lies in its ability to evoke the humanity behind an iconic figure.