Directed by Peter Greenaway. UK/France/Netherlands. 1989.

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The plot of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover centres on tyrannical restaurant owner Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) who often dines at his extravagant eatery accompanied by his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and several lackeys.  Unbeknown to him though, his wife is escaping from her loveless marriage by partaking in an affair with one of the restaurant’s patrons, Michael (Alan Howard).  Upon finding this out, Albert decides to teach the pair a lesson.  However, he does not reckon on his wife’s own novel plan for revenge…

The most arresting elements of this film are undoubtedly the sumptuous visuals, with the ostentatious style matching well with Gambon’s character: considering the nature of Albert Spica, it is not hard to believe that he would choose this particular style for his restaurant.  The lighting is particularly eye-catching, with a different colour used for each of the restaurant’s rooms and projected onto the characters as well, creating a surreal, dreamlike effect.  The visual elements are also complimented perfectly by the dramatic, classical score.  The aesthetic may have a slight late 1980s vibe yet it still feels as original as when the film was first released and does not fail to make an impression.  Indeed, while opinions on the film as a whole may vary, it is hard to deny that it is one of the most striking and lavish visions ever put to screen

The cast here is first-rate, especially Michael Gambon in what is perhaps his finest role.  Turning in a gleefully wicked performance as the greedy, vulgar and conceited gangster/restaurateur, he sets about the role with relish and creates one of cinema’s greatest villains.  Helen Mirren meanwhile does an excellent job of charting her character’s progression: she is initially glamorous yet detached, in keeping with her character’s unhappy relationship, yet as the film progresses and Georgina embarks on a relationship with Michael, her strength and sensuality come into the fore.  Alan Howard’s role is not that substantial yet he portrays the required sensitivity, which provides a counterpoint to Gambon’s character and helps us identify with Georgina’s actions.

Although this is not a mainstream film, it is by no means inaccessible- something that cannot be said of some of Greenaway’s other output.  It may not be to everyone’s taste due to its avant-garde style and controversial nature but it is not as pretentious as one might imagine. This is certainly no popcorn flick, yet the director has crafted his most complete and audience-friendly film without betraying his art house sensibilities.  This is a hard balance to achieve but Greenaway pulls it off and for this alone, he should be applauded.  

Without revealing the details, the notorious conclusion is as shocking and memorable as its reputation suggests and proves a surprisingly fitting and satisfying end to the story.  It may seem extreme but the film as a whole is not what one would call commonplace and so it seems only right that the ending should follow suit.  The actors’ skilful portrayal of their characters also helps in that we sympathise with Georgina and want Albert to get his comeuppance.  In the end, Albert has lived a life of greed and so his punishment seems an apt and natural conclusion.   

Overall, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover manages to be an art house film whilst still being enjoyable and not alienating the viewers.  It is not a film for everyone- in fact, it is the very definition of a love it or hate it affair- but it is nevertheless a stunningly original and memorable experience.

Lucinda Ireson
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