Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract is an 1982 film by Peter Greenaway that contains elements of the country house murder mystery, transported to the 17th century. It is, of course, much more than a whodunit, though it’s amusing to note that one of the central characters, Mr Talman (son-in-law of Mr Herbert, who owns the house)is played by Hugh Fraser, better known to us as Poirot’s naïve sidekick Captain Arthur Hastings.

The contract that the eponymous draughtsman, Mr Neville, is asked to enter into with the lady of the house (played by Janet Suzman) during her husband’s absence involves his producing twelve drawings of the Herbert house and grounds, but he insists on being granted twelve sexual favours as a condition of agreeing to the project.

It gradually becomes apparent that strange things are happening while the draughtsman undertakes his commission – not least the antics of a mysterious ‘living statue’. And it becomes ever more clear as the film goes on that not only is Mr Herbert dead, but that, far from being in control of events, Neville is a dupe. The ending is quite horrific.

This is a film that requires careful watching, and I’m not sure I paid it all the attention it deserved – a drawback of late night televiewing. I’d like to see it again to gain a better understanding of some of Greenaway’s sub-texts. Michael Nyman’s soundtrack has been much praised, as has Greenaway’s cinematic skill. Some may call this film pretentious – it’s absolutely not an ‘action thriller’ – but it’s undeniably intriguing.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for sharing this film review. The story does, indeed, sound intriguing, and I have to admit to liking Hugh Fraser. I'm going to have to see if I can find this one. You have a way of adding to my TBW list as much as my TBR list : ).

Maxine Clarke said...

I went to see this at the cinema not long after it opened, and it left me totally confused. I saw another film or two by Peter Greenaway but no more - I concluded he is too intellectual for me.

I don't remember much about TDC except it was long-drawn-out (and incomprehensible) with lots of nice art direction. I do remember being very confused by the "human statues" that were popping in and out of shot, until some years later someone told me that it was quite usual at the time for rich landed types to pay someone to be a "living statue" for their entertainment/diversion as they walked the grounds.

Interestingly, living statues have become very common in modern times, at least in tourist spots in big cities. You can't move for them along the South Bank in London on a weekend, for example.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh good...I don't like action thrillers usually. :)

I do like Hugh Fraser--it'll be interesting for me to see him in a non-sidekick role. I'll see if I can find the film.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Deb said...

I remember seeing this in the theater in the early 1980s and, despite the ambiguity of what exactly was going on, enjoying it. It's the sort of film that benefits from a repeat viewing, with the knowledge that, as you say, Neville is being duped--although he's too arrogant to realize this until it's too late.

I think the last Peter Greenaway film I saw was "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," which was so horrible I almost walked out of the theater.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I haven't seen it but it sounds like an interesting film. I love the ones where you have to watch more than once to fully take in everything.


Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these enjoyable comments, everyone.
Maxine, I always think living statues are rather fun. But I must admit I'm relieved that you too found bits of the film difficult to fathom at first viewing!