There are few British filmmakers alive today whose work divides opinion more frequently (and bitterly) 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 notorious “A Zed and Two Noughts“, critics and fans alike can rest assured that debates surrounding Greenaway’s work will continue long after his retirement; or voluntary suicide as I’m sure he would prefer to call it. 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 some would say trademark. “The Draughtsman’s Contract” is arguably Greenaway’s best film, a proclamation some may protest or dismay over, however, it’s 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 unravels in England, in 1694 when the wealthy lady of a landowner, 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 watercolour of intrigue, seduction and murder (forgive the puns). But don’t let the foibles of the British period drama put you off, Greenaway’s vision of a darkly ripening Orange England is a surprisingly modern mix of cinematic forms. Once one gets past the overtly self-promoting dialogue, penned by the director himself, the humour that lurks behind each snappy scene is rather charming and full of wit.
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 one of the main joys to witness throughout the narrative, 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 Flemish-Renaissance style visuals.
Given the great taste in style and art direction that Greenaway has displayed constantly throughout 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 Greenaway’s most accessible film to date with his follow up project “A Zed and Two Noughts” completely dividing his fanbase. Its political intrigue and use of language are immensely confident and well done. The cast are all highly skilled and well picked 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. Its greatest strength, however, is also its greatest weakness. Greenaway is not a filmmaker for everyone, even I umm and ah about how to feel when regarding his work. But if 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.