Loveless marriages, endangered inheritances, murder, intrigue
Running Time: 104 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
Country: United Kingdom
After many years working as a documentary editor at the Central Office of Information, and over a decade making experimental mockumentaries (collected in The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 and The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 2), Peter Greenaway decided to turn his hand to a feature film, with his characters for the first time delivering their lines to one another rather than to the camera. The result is ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, which managed to bring together many of Greenaway’s abstruse intellectual obsessions into their most accessible form yet, marking the beginning of his long career (recently revived with ‘The Tulse Luper Suitcases’) as Britain’s best known arthouse director.
The date is 1694. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) engages the talents of Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young, arrogant draughtsman, in an unorthodox contract: in return for making twelve drawings of the Herberts’ Wiltshire estate – drawings intended as a conciliatory gift to Virginia’s estranged and absent husband – Neville is to be paid with sexual favours from Virginia. As the days progress, suggestive items start to appear in the house’s environs, which Neville faithfully draws into his pictures, as he himself is drawn into the developing picture of an extended household troubled by ambition, lust, jealousy and greed. When a corpse is found, Neville realises that, while everyone apparently has a motive for murder, he himself has also been placed in the frame by his own drawings which have all too successfully captured the innermost secrets of the house.
In ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, Greenaway ploughs the familiar landscape of the murder mystery, but plants in it new, exotic fruits all of his own. For while there certainly is an unnatural death in a genteel country setting, this film, with its arch, pun-riddled dialogue, its exquisite painterly mise-en-scène, its exaggerated Restoration costumes and its considerable intellectual heft, is miles away from Agatha Christie territory. Classical allusions, historical curiosities, architectural follies and sexual liberties all combine to create an enigma which, in a plot full of theoretical reflections on the difference between seeing and knowing, is an exuberant if knotty entertainment as much for the mind as for the eye.
The willful jauntiness of Michael Nyman’s score, based on motifs lifted from Purcell, offers a deliciously ironic counterpoint to the events onscreen, and would have to count as one of my favourite soundtracks of all time. The film’s visual composition is simply stunning, and the script is so dizzyingly crammed with wit, conceit, insult, allusion, innuendo and equivocation that it will amply reward any number of revisits. Indeed, as is only appropriate for a film about a set of images which have to be interpreted and reinterpreted many times to follow the labyrinthine trail of infidelity and murder encoded within them, you may well find yourself needing to view ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ itself more than once to appreciate all its secret nooks and crannies, and to cast some light onto its obscure solution.
It's Got: Loveless marriages, endangered inheritances, murder, intrigue, elegantly crisp dialogue (concealing profound rudeness), lots of drawings, and a clownish man employed as a statue.
It Needs: Close attention and multiple viewings.
DVD Extras Exquisitely packaged with animated menus, this DVD has: options for English/French audio and Dutch/French subtitles; a 3-minute documentary on the films digital transfer and digital restoration (offering graphic splitscreen before and after comparisons showing just how brilliant the restored version is); four deleted sequences; abehind-the-scenes glimpse into the pomegranate sequence; brief interviews with Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman and Peter Greenaway made during the original shoot; David Thompsons Guardian Interview with Michael Nyman (made after a screening at the National Film Theatre); a gallery of stills (including the drawings by Peter Greenaway of the estate, as used in the film); trailers for The Draughtsmans Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts; and a URL for even more bonus material online. Best of all however is the close participation of the director himself. Peter Greenaway has written the sleeve notes, delivers a ten-minute filmed introduction to the film, and gives his voice to the first-class audio commentary, in which, instead of dissecting the film scene by scene, he provides a charming and erudite account of the historical context and theoretical underpinnings of the film, taking in inheritance law changes under William and Mary, the evolution of wigs, state-of-the-art candle lighting, the differences between television and cinema - as well as pointing out that a four-piece delft tea set borrowed for one of the final scenes had been valued by insurers as worth over ten times the entire films budget. DVD Extras Rating: 10/10
Alternatives:Blow Out, The Serpents Kiss
Peter Greenaway's first feature film is arguably his best – in a seventeenth century English country garden, history and artful speculation are grafted in a murder mystery plot to yield strange, fertile fruits for the imagination, which will delight with their tart acerbity.