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The Draughtsman’s Contract review – Peter Greenaway’s nasty reinvention of the period drama

This acerbic 1982 classic, re-released courtesy of the BFI, tells the story of a 17th century draughtsman embroiled in a murder plot

Oh, how modern UK cinema sorely lacks someone with the acerbic nastiness of Peter Greenaway! This welcome 40th anniversary re-issue of The Draughtsman’s Contract, his second feature and arguably the one that did most to cement his early success in the ‘80s, showcases the work of a deliriously witty showman, always gleefully a few steps ahead of his audience.

In the film’s reinvention of the costume-heavy aristocratic period drama so integral to the British film industry, we find a director reckoning with the meaning of compromise, commerce, and artistic creation within stifling social circumstances. Perhaps all his best films are variations on the same theme, laid out here: how can artists comply with the financial power dynamics that allow them to make a living, even as those power dynamics are so often cruel, censorious, and deeply unfair?

The Draughtsman’s Contract has modern-day descendants in films such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship. These films may take on Greenaway’s archness and irony, but they lack his brutality and rage – factors most clearly visible in the director’s 1989 masterpiece The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and also here. That his approach is so off-hand and emotionally distant suggests a wry creator navigating his own moral complicity through the medium of film.

The plot focuses on the Herberts, the family of a country estate who hire a draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to make a series of drawings of their opulent house. Events immediately take a more sinister turn: Mr. Neville requests the sexual services of Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) as part of his contract (the negotiations of which take up the first ten minutes of the film, filmed with no establishing shots and a succession of candlelit rooms with little clue just yet as to who is who).

An impudent cad, Mr. Neville is a frankly terrible houseguest, with an obtuse laundry list of demands to allow him to work and enjoy the house grounds at his pleasure. And herein lies Greenaway’s entry point – Mr. Neville is a working man, utilising the language and social constructs of the aristocracy against them. In signing his contract, he barters his way into an abusive, manipulative relationship with his employer. For Mr. Neville, it’s about playing a game in which he upturns the social order of the world around him. For his employers and their social circle, it's about maintaining appearances – a fact that becomes especially pronounced when the patriarch Mr. Herbert is found murdered, and in a nod to Blow Up, it appears as if Mr. Neville has unknowingly drawn evidence of his demise in his work.

Greenaway’s visual richness is on full display here, his art school background ensuring the film has a deeply painterly compositional sense. Each scene is blocked and framed as if to accentuate the sheer hatred each character seems to display for one another, exacerbated by the deliciously witty script, with every other line functioning as a barb or provocation. His work would become more ambitious with every subsequent film, from the baroque sets of The Belly of an Architect to the excess of Drowning by Numbers. If The Draughtsman’s Contract lapses a little into repetition somewhere around the middle, labouring its point for a while, it sharpens into a dagger for the glorious final act.

The Draughtsman's Contract is re-released in UK cinemas on 11 November.

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