The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.

Role: Michael - the Lover

Alan Howard, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, and (at the back) Richard Bohringer

Review / Financial Times, 12.10.89 (below)

Review / The Observer, 14.10.89

Review / The Scotsman, 14.10.89

A masterpiece of movie invention

The British are deeply suspicious of intelligence. A nation that allows phrases like "smart aleck, "clever dick" or "too clever by half" to become legal tender as pejoratives clearly believes in the Bank of Honourable Stupidity. That bank advances loans only to customers with a single-figure I.Q., or with a facility for phrases like "I don't know much about art but I've got a closed mind to most other things as well." And when a native film-maker like Peter Greenaway (too clever by half in many critics' books) wants to finance his most ambitious movie yet, a sort of Jacobean melodrama gone post-modernist, the clever dick has to apply abroad.


Result, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover: a Dutch-French-financed film by the British writer-director of The Draughtsman's Contract, The Belly Of An Architect and Drowning By Numbers.

Greenaway's new film is - let us waste no time - a masterpiece. And the fact that no one in Britain could stump up the money is - let us face facts - a scandal. You know you are in the high sierras of movie invention from scene one; a gloriously elaborate crane-shot that rises from a shadow-play of gaunt dogs fighting over scraps through a maze of scaffolding to reveal a misty alley-cum-car-park, lit blue and eerie with menace.

In this studio-built purgatorio - a Fellini set teleported to London - a nude man is being beaten up and smeared with excrement. Leading the assault is gangster Albert Spica, who dines nightly with his minions at the plush eatery he part-owns that has just ejected this victim. (Perhaps it was something he didn't eat.)

Played by Michael Gambon, Spica is a roaring, bigoted vulgarian who makes Alf Garnett seem like the late Lord David Cecil. Presiding over his banquet-table, he bullies the French chef (Richard Bohringer), nags his cowed but stoical wife (Helen Mirren) and abuses or assaults other customers. The one diner he scarcely notices is lonely, bookish Alan Howard. And lo! With him Miss Mirren is soon exchanging oeillades and then slipping off to enjoy a spot of in situ infidelity. First in the gleaming-white ladies' loo, later in the shadowy nooks and pantries of the kitchen.

Will Gambon suspect - or is he too stupid by half? Will all-seeing chef Bohringer abet the lovers or blow the whistle? And why are the film's different arenas all in different colours? Red for the dining-room; white for the bathroom; shimmery-green for kitchen; menace-blue for car park. (And good heavens, even the characters' clothes change colour as they move from room to room.)

Answer: the film offers us a greyhound-sleek plot enriched with marrowbone metaphor. All those who decry intelligence in the cinema may now skip to the next movie, where it is strictly rationed. As Greenaway's tale of love, greed and revenge pounds on, it gathers so much symbolic elaboration the brain and senses hum with delighted overload. Greenaway himself has talked of the most obvious metaphor: the restaurant as alimentary tract, a biological joke on the Thatcherite era of conspicuous consumption. The dining-room is the mouth while the reeking, steaming back alley/carpark plays host to violence and effluence.

But subtler resonances soon multiply; wittiest of all, the echo between a modern tale of sex, jealousy and gangsterdom and an upturned Garden of Eden fable. Our soon-disrobed lovers Howard and Mirren - discovering a lost erotic delight amid the garden-green fruits of the earth and fowls of the air (Bohringer's cornucopia'd tables and goose-hung pantries) - are the reborn innocents fleeing the wrath of Gambon. Chef Bohringer is the sinuous tempter, plying the tastebuds and sheltering their sensuality. And when the lovers flee the restaurant, Greenaway's eclectic painter's eye rhymes their horror and humiliation - as they stow away in a meat van seething with worms and decay - with the gestural despair of classic depictions of the Fall from Masaccio to Michelangelo.

The movies painterly richness is nigh inexhaustible. The groaning dining tables, with their toppling symmetries of fruit and flesh, invoke the Dutch still lives dear to Greenaway. And whenever the camera launches itself on a long, thrilling travelling-shot, powered by the melodic mantras of Michael Nyman's music, a vast human fresco seems to come to life before our eyes. The "frozen moment" gesturalism of great painting suddenly joins with the mobile revelations of movie-making. It is a dazzling union. And it shows - with all Greenaway's best work - that the language of film is enriched, not betrayed, by an intelligence steeped in other arts, other eruditions.

Nigel Andrews

The Financial Times, 12.10.1989.

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