Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

A year of revolutions brings a, well, revolting (but brilliant) British film about excess and decadence.

Tue, Dec 3, 2013, 22:19


How exactly did this happen? Somewhere along the road we rather lost touch with Peter Greenaway. The challenging, surrealist director, now 71, was never to everybody’s taste. All those strange puzzles lurking in corners. All that extravagant imagery. It seemed just a little unEnglish (indeed, he comes across as a much grimmer Fellini at times). Greenaway’s most recent film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, remains almost entirely unseen. Yet, for a full decade, he was one of his nation’s most original and striking talents. The stream of films that run from The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982 to Prospero’s Books in 1992 remain every bit as bewitching as they were at the time.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover — a title that is still parodied — was the closest Greenaway came to a mainstream hit. That was partly down to a fine score from his longtime collaborator Michael Nyman. It also helped that Helen Mirren gave one of her most dangerously saucy performances. The picture is set in a strange parallel universe (for some reason I think of Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana) that looks quite like our own, but allows more heightened feelings and more extravagant textures. Michael Gambon plays a hoodlum who has just invested in a restaurant that boasts the gifted Richard Bohringer as its head chef. When Gambon’s wife –Ms Mirren — cops off with a bookshop owner, revenges are enacted that recall the horrors of Jacobean tragedy. It’s a little bit Titus Andronicus. There’s some of The Changeling in there also.

Nineteen eighty-nine was, of course, a significant year. Towards its close, the Berlin Wall came down and the shape of Europe changed forever. Among the people taking the credit was Mrs Thatcher, and Greenaway’s subject — in the most explicitly political of his great films — is the philistinism and greed that the era encouraged. Gambon is the ultimate robber baron: loving money and excess. It is no coincidence that his moll finds herself sneaking away with somebody who represents the cultural alternative. One of Greenaway’s points is that the pursuit of wealth has corrupted those leading the chase.

In that sense, the film sits beside so much political theatre of the time: plays by Howard Brenton, David Edgar, David Hare and Howard Barker. How angry those works were. They seethe with violence, disgust and hopelessness. That had as much to do with the betrayals of the 1970s as it did with the less complicated right-wing takeover in the decade that followed. But, by the 1990s, it was largely flushed out. That’s not to say there aren’t still fiercely political film-makers and playwrights out there. But few of them exhibit this degree of bile.

Aside from all that, of course, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was also a darkly beautiful film. Greenaway trained as a visual artist and it shows. Indeed, he was a muralist and the films play out a bit like walls of image. How nice it would be to see a few more of them.

For 1989 we also considered Crimes and Misdemeanours, Do the Right Thing, The Killer, A City of Sadness and Roger & Me.