Saoirse’s Cult Corner #39: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This fortnight, break down a classic slice of British Cult Cinema, Peter Greenaway‘s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Peter Greenaway is famously one of the most idiosyncratic and stylish directors produced by British cinema. His films are defined by explorations of art with stark compositions and a veneer of politeness covering up a seething undertone of perversity and depravity building to some horrendous climax. Whether it’s the ripe sexuality of The Draughtsman’s Contract or the time lapse degradation of A Zed & Two Noughts, his films unpick the fragility of polite society and expose the raw nerve of human nature. His films are flagrantly indulgent and ask you to enjoy the deliciousness of their own indulgence, and ask you to drink deep of their own perversity. They also, to a one, feature long diatribes philosophising on the nature of artistic expression, as a metaphor for the film itself which you’re watching. This is something that I normally find infuriating and annoying in films, (see Blue Is The Warmest Colour and a smattering of Goddard pictures), and although I do find it annoying when Greenaway does it, I do tolerate it more from him because his whole cinematic aesthetic is obsessed with metatextual commentary and invoking artistic ideas through the artifice of its construction to compliment its ideas and themes. There is one film though where I do feel like these elements come together the best, and it’s maybe his most uncharacteristic film… 

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a gangster film from 1989 starring Helen Mirren and Micheal Gambon in some of their most iconic roles without grey hair. It also features bit parts from iconic British and Irish actors like Ciarán Hinds, Tim Roth, Roger Lloyd Pack, and Ian Dury. On this note, it’s worth just saying that it’s amazing how many underrated arthouse classics Tim Roth turns up in. He really didn’t keep up that ethic as he aged unfortunately, but young Roth did work. Gambon plays a fast talking, gluttonous, vulgar gangster who must have half the lines in the script. He’s a racketeer, and a bully and a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. He treats his glamorous wife, Helen Mirren, like dirt, and you get the idea very quickly that the only reason she stays with him is because if she leaves he might murder her. He treats everything like his right and his possession and acts as if entitled to all things. Although this compliments his gangsterism and enables it, it is certainly true that I have known many British men like him whose rackets include business, politics, and being a lout in a pub. He has taken ownership of one of the restaurants he runs a protection racket against and proceeds over the course of a week to ruin it slowly by eating there every night. During this time, his wife, Helen Mirren, takes up with a lover in the restaurant; a reader, an educated man, and someone with empathy for another person. It’s a complicated relationship they share, and one that maybe wouldn’t last if it wasn’t one of such a pressurised environment, but you feel its intensity with a great fervour. As the relationship escalated so does Gambon’s passions, and it all comes to a head in one of the most infamously transgressive finales of revenge ever put to film. 

One of the great joys of the film is the stylistic choices Greenaway makes over the two hour run time. His films are always mannered but this is different. It’s difficult to express but when I think of The Draughtsman’s Contract or A Zed & Two Noughts, I think of the colour white, those are very stark and open films to me. They feel like films about the sublime and the sublimated. They are about the ego and the superego. When I think about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, I think of the colour red. Although there are still sets that are bathed in white, they are often tinged with red light, and are designed to act in contrast to the shadows of the kitchen or the blistering, relentless red of the dining room, providing the sanctuary of the purifying virginal white. When sex happens in the white room, it’s a pure love, and when violence or sexualised violence happens in the red room, it’s hateful. If The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed & Two Noughts are films about ego and superego, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover exposes the raging id underneath. These are very basic ways for colour theory to apply to film studies but these elements of the film are very effective in part because of their blunt simplicity. The film has a mythical, allegorical element to it. As the title implies, these are archetypes bouncing off each other, so having that almost operatic grandness to the symbolism not only matches the hugeness of the performances and emotions of the characters but allows the film to move very smoothly through it’s emotional maze by giving you huge, obvious signposts as to where you’re meant to go. I do not mean this as a criticism. It means the film has a poetic flow, and it’s not relying on conventional narrative techniques is aided by the rest of the film being fairly simplistic. It makes the immediacy of the film visceral, hit straight to your heart. This also means when the shocking climax comes it makes sense. It’s not a tonal sheer, so it allows the film to really reach a new level of transfixing extremity in its final moments while still feeling classy, for want of a better term. It’s also aided by how hard the film commits to the aesthetic. If someone moves from one room to another in one shot, their entire costume will change to fit in with the colour of the room. 

It’s important to highlight the performances. Gambon is electric in a role that only he could really pull off. He has probably as many lines as Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and they’re in a very different register. Every line is rich, and pointed, and dripping with innuendo and meaning and literacy and vulgarity and crudeness. The writing on that note is incredible in order to keep up that level of sheer interest with every line. Gambon sells it like he was born to though. He understood exactly what the assignment called for and delivered and enjoyed doing it, probably. Mirren matches him by going the other way, by building nuance and vulnerability into her performance that allows her to stand tall with her shoulders back. It’s a very proud performance, while still seeming very fragile and on the verge of tears at any one time. It’s an emotional state I think a lot of us in these relentlessly dark times can empathise with. 

There is one aspect of this film I want to address before I sign off. Many contemporary critics, most famously Roger Ebert, saw this film as a blatant and uncompromising condemnation of Thatcher, and these readings are both right and wrong to me. They’re incomplete. If it is a condemnation of Thatcher, it’s a fairly unnuanced one. The thing about it that strikes closest to the truth though is something at the core of not just Thatcher’s belief system but the whole conservative framework of thinking about the world. The thing that enables Gambon to be the psychopathic monster that he is in this film is his character’s lack of understanding of having constructive support for other people. All he sees is people as useful objects and tools, and he sees bullying them as a method of control and therefore the only useful way to interact with them, and his power enables him. In many people’s minds, this defines Thatcher’s policies, and her success reveals the prevalence of it in British society that we refuse to acknowledge, and through refusing to acknowledge it does it sustain itself. For me, that’s the thing about this critique, in that the film is more about this strain in British culture than it is specifically about any aspect of Thatcher’s policy and actions. If the film is an emotional opera it does that wonderfully, but if it’s a specific critique of policy, it’s maybe too broad to land in that way, and acts more like a mirror up to British society. It doesn’t have the ability to call out specifics in the way, say, The Long Good Friday does. That’s not a slight against the film at all, it does what it does amazingly, but Americans insisting that film has political relevance from the outside of Britain’s culture rings as a little imperialist and crass, but that’s just me. 

To summarise, ​​The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a sledgehammer of a film, wielded by a filmmaker who is famous for wielding scalpels, and as a result smashes everything in sight. It’s fucking glorious. 

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