There are few British filmmakers alive today whose work divides opinion more bitterly and frequently than writer/director Peter Greenaway. With a career that has included “The Belly of an Architect“, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover” and of course the overtly infamous “A Zed and Two Noughts” critics and fans alike can rest assured that debates surrounding his work will continue long after his retirement with such a healthily large body of cinema to analyse until almost certain pointlessness. However there was a time when this peculiarly talented filmmaker was just beginning his career, dipping only his toes into the uniquely artistic pool that would later become his identifiable style and later even trademark. “The Draughtsman’s Contract” is arguably Greenaway’s best film, a proclamation some may protest or dismay over however one I relish. Why? Simply put it is one of the most inventive, visually splendid and deviously written British costume dramas you are likely to ever see with the sad truth of the matter being that you’ve probably never even heard of it!
Our cleverly written and fiendishly performed story begins in England, 1694 when the wealthy lady of a land owner Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) persuades a young and enjoyably arrogant draughtsman Mr Neville (Anthony Huggins) to produce twelve drawings of her husband’s estate. What begins as a simple exchange of “payments” for the series of incredibly accurate, if perhaps suggestively alluring pencil drawings soon becomes a much murkier and foreboding water colour of intrigue, seduction and murder (forgive the puns). But don’t let the foibles of the British period costume drama put you off, Greenaway’s vision of a darkly ripening Orange England is a surprisingly modern mix of cinematic form. Once one gets past the overly self-promoting dialogue, penned by the director himself, the humour that lurks behind it is rather charming and full of wit. As is its inventiveness with the conventional narrative approach to period drama storytelling.
For only Greenaway’s second directed feature the confidence Contract has in its approach to storytelling is abundantly clear. His all or nothing gamble pays off in the enjoyment one gets from seeing what is essentially a cast full of hateful, jealous and vain individuals who all compete by verbal fencing in of course the most typically British of styles. But dialogue aside the splendid cinematography of the estate’s gardens and architecture is another joy to witness, acting much like the backdrop of Mr Neville’s detailed drawings, where several of the main cast converse and banter as well as plot dark thoughts. This collaboration between Greenaway and the cinematographer Curtis Clark was short lived however as the director would go on to use Frenchman Sacha Vierny in future projects when attempting to create more Vermeeresque visuals.
Given the great tastes in style and art direction that Greenaway has displayed constantly in his career it feels somewhat sad that this blog entry can only truly focus on just one of his features. But in truth it is also equally depressing that The Draughtsman’s Contract is also Grenaway’s most accessible film to date with his following project “A Zed and Two Noughts” completely dividing his fanbase. Its political intrigue and use of language is immensely confident and well done. The cast are all highly skilled and well placed to create the 17th century type of personality one would expect to find in such a very ‘British’ piece of cinema, and its music, lighting and use of set design help to leave a memorable mark in comparison to similarly themed features. It’s greatest strength however is also its greatest weakness. Greenaway is not a filmmaker for everyone, even I um and ah about how to feel when regarding his work. If however you fall in love with Contract it would be difficult to resist the temptation of viewing more of his work. Just prepare to expect the unexpected as our Mr Neville clearly did not.