Film appreciation: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Peter Greenaway's brutal and fantastical vision of oppressive 1980s Britain is a masterpiece that still has the power to shock

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm

The brutality, viciousness, crudity and depravity voiced in British director Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover meant it was generally reviled on its release in 1989. Audiences could not understand why a serious director would want to display such disgusting characters on screen.

But Greenaway was simply a couple of decades ahead of his time. Although the film still has the power to shock - not least by depicting a crisply roasted human body at a dinner table - its gruesome view of humanity sits comfortably aside more recent works by, say, Lars von Trier. Time has been kind to The Cook, The Thief … and has revealed it as the intellectually provocative director's masterpiece.

The story takes place in a vast French restaurant in a Baroque neo-Britain in which the inhabitants wear clothing influenced by the works of Rembrandt. The thief (Michael Gambon) is a vile gangster who delights in murder, beating up children and humiliating his wife (Helen Mirren). He's also a food-obsessed gourmet who dines on the dishes of the French cook, played by Richard Bohringer.

The wife, who lives in terror of the thief, starts a romance with a bookstore owner (Alan Howard) to find some emotional respite. When the thief finds out, he murders the lover by choking him on the pages of his books. To gain her revenge, the wife orchestrates a plan to force the thief to eat the freshly roasted body of her lover at gunpoint.

The story, which is mainly set in a restaurant, is play-like in nature - there is a lot of verbiage - but it's too skilfully directed to be dismissed as overly theatrical. The set transports the viewer to an arcane netherworld full of barking dogs, sumptuous food, and extravagantly dressed criminals and prostitutes. It's a vision that is fantastical, but still recognisable as the oppressive Britain of the 1980s. Jean-Paul Gaultier's garish costumes help to fuel the fantasy.

Greenaway has said he drew on fine art for inspiration. Although Rembrandt is the visual cue here, Greenaway's desire to show the nightmarish inner quality of human existence, and the darkness that lies just beneath the veneer of civilised appearance, references the work of Francis Bacon. The director doesn't use an intricate storyline to get this point across, preferring to concentrate on the inner psychology of his characters, like a painter.

Greenaway belongs to a tradition of British experimental filmmakers that began in the 1960s with directors such as Lindsay Anderson ( If …) and all but expired in the 1990s. The view of Britain in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover sits neatly alongside works such as The Last of England by Derek Jarman, and is a pertinent antidote to the glossy TV-oriented dramas now produced in the UK.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren Director: Peter Greenaway