Charles Laughton did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn in Rembrandt.
Rembrandt is the second biographical film directed by Alexander Korda starring Charles Laughton. The first was The Private Life of Henry VIII, for which Laughton won his only Oscar. Rembrandt is far lesser known film of the two, I imagine mostly because of Henry's Oscar recognition, although they technically follow a similar formula. Both examine the life of the two famous individuals mainly through their romantic relationships. Rembrandt opens very near the death of his wife, just as Henry opened near the death of Anne Boleyn Henry's second wife, although the nature of the deaths could not be more different. The men also could not be more different and it is interesting to see Laughton take on this role. In the early scenes of the film Laughton presents Rembrandt as very specifically the great artist. After all why should he not be seen as such considering he's quite successful as well as has a happy personal life with his wife and son. Laughton carries himself in a very particular way that accentuates just how much of a genius Rembrandt is, and the reason for this is his successes allow him to behave in this way. Laughton's excellent though in that he brings a certain pompousness of his artistic ideas, yet he still manages to make it seem rather earned by the man.
Laughton captures a merited greatness of the man as the words he speaks do seem to have depth and meaning even though he technically speaking might be a bit indulgent in his approach. Laughton importantly does not make this seem an intentional instead he creates this man who has almost risen to a higher echelon of thinking. This can't last forever though when Rembrandt's wife suddenly dies. Laughton is incredibly effective in realizes the way the death changes Rembrandt as he has been thrown off his pedestal by being hit with the cruelty of reality. Laughton is very good in realizing the unique sort of grief in Rembrandt as he deals with the death. He does not play it as an overt sadness but says so much through the way the man withdraws somewhat. There is one especially powerful moment where Rembrandt shows just how much he cared for his wife by attempting to draw one more portrait of her even though he no longer has her there to model for him. Laughton is quite moving as he portrays Rembrandt last moments of holding onto his wife until her image fades from his mind forever. Onward, even after his grieving period, he is still unable to find his former self, not at all helped by his son's wet nurse, his first mistress, who seems to demand her position as such due to having put her time in, more than because she truly loves Rembrandt.
Rembrandt's work in particular changes and Laughton projects a rougher personality altogether. In a scene where he has to deal with some unhappy costumers who did not care for his portrait of them, Laughton is terrific in bringing a strong incisiveness to Rembrandt as he bluntly states what he dislikes about the men without hesitate. Laughton is great in bringing a certain vicious bitterness in Rembrandt as now he seems to place himself above others, but does not hesitate to remind them of this fact now. At the same time though Laughton brings a certain earthy quality in these scenes as though Rembrandt is more aware of the world he exists in, the fact that he's far less successful as artist does not seem to hurt. There is one particularly good scene where Rembrandt goes back to his family in the country and has to deal with the locals. There dynamic that Laughton strikes up that is rather brilliant. He projects Rembrandt taking in the local color as one of them with a certain joy, yet he still brings his artistic flourishes that keeps him a distance. Every once in a while Rembrandt will make a quote, which every time Laughton delivers in a flawless and beautiful fashion that so well suggests the man's artistry without showing him creating a panting.
Rembrandt continues in his problematic dueling natures until he meets a different potential mistress his maid played by Elsa Lanchester. The real life husband wife had shared the screen as at least potential lovers in Henry VIII, but their relationship basically amounted to a comic bit. This time though the relationship is taken far more seriously. Laughton and Lanchester have inherent warmth in their scenes together and do quite well to show exactly how this relationship differs from Rembrandt's previous mistress. The relationship has many difficulties though as he is unable to marry her due to his wife's will, and the public looks down upon their unwed status leaving her to become excommunicated. In these scenes Laughton very gradually brings Rembrandt perhaps to his best point as a man and as artist as he finally seems to start to find contentment in his life and his work. Laughton brings back a joy to life in Rembrandt, but without even the distance he created in the early scenes. Instead Laughton very effectively brings Rembrandt to the point where he finally seems to fully understand his place in the world and how to find happiness within it. What is perhaps most notable his transformation throughout is that technically it is all a bit rushed by the film's swift pace, yet Laughton never stumbles in fact making it seem as though Rembrandt's life story is not rushed at all. This is a tremendous performance by Laughton as he so well realizes every moments of this journey through his complex depiction of this remarkable man.