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DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, THE (director/writer: Peter Greenaway; cinematographer: Curtis Clark; editor: John Wilson; music: Michael Nyman; cast: Anthony Higgins (Mr. Neville), Janet Suzman (Mrs. Herbert), Anne Louise Lambert (Mrs. Talmann), Neil Cunningham (Mr. Noyes), Hugh Fraser (Mr. Talmann), Dave Hill (Mr. Herbert), David Gant, (Mr. Seymour), David Meyer and Tony Meyer (The Poulencs), Michael Feast (Statue), Steve Ubels (Mr. Van Hoyten), Ben Kirby (Augustus); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Payne; Fox Lorber; 1982-UK)
“One of the best, most original and diabolical films to come out of England.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the first full-length feature of experimental filmmaker Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”/”The Belly of an Architect”/”Prospero’s Books”)that’s not a documentary. It’s his stylistic, witty and elegant breakthrough film, that gave him an international audience and made him an arthouse favorite for the rest of his career; it’s an enigmatic murder mystery set in the lush English countryside of the 17th century. Though made on a small-budget, it’s one of the best, most original and diabolical films to come out of England.

In 1694, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a contemptuous traveling young artist, is hired by the wealthy estate owner’s wife, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman), to make 12 drawings of the estate as a gift for her husband (Dave Hill), who will be away during that time on business in Southampton. In exchange he will receive £8 per picture, bed and board, and 12 sexual favors at his convenience. At first reluctant to accept, the cheeky artist does when both Mrs. Herbert and her pretty married daughter Mrs. Talmann (Anne Louise Lambert) desperately plead with him.

The artist acts tyrannical, as he tells the estate owners and guests what to wear and where to appear, demands certain conditions be met on the landscape and insists on dining out in the open air. What he doesn’t notice in his drawings, since he only draws what he sees and lacks imagination, is that Mr. Herbert’s garments appear strewn over the landscape as well as a misplaced ladder to a second-floor window. He doesn’t realize that this might indicate clues about a murder on the premises, until it’s pointed out to him by Mrs. Talmann. She then more or less blackmails him into drawing up the same contract with the sexual favors her mom has, which is very agreeable to the son of a tenant farmer–at least for awhile. As a web of intrigue is built around the possibility of Mr. Herbert’s body being buried on the grounds, Mr. Neville’s comeuppance will be realized through a complicated and chilling scheme by his social betters that include the bigoted Germanic Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser), his client’s nasty impotent hubby, Mr. Noyes (Neil Cunningham), the sleazy family adviser, the contract arranger and confidante of Mrs. Herbert, and the Poulencs–gloomy and gossipy twin brothers (David Meyer and Tony Meyer).

There’s much to delight in this beguiling Dada mystery played out in Jacobean style that has the men in fancy wigs, the ladies dressed in rich costumes, the conversation by candlelight be as appetizing as the sumptuous meals served, the decorative music by Michael Nyman sounding as baroque as a Purcell piece and the estate looking as grand as a first-class English park. It’s artificiality at its most natural.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”