The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman's Contract

***1/2

Reviewed by: The Hoodler

Presented with the utmost elegance, The Draughtsman's Contract is a sublime piece of filmmaking. The opulent costumes, aristocratic grandeur and natural landscaped beauty hark back to an age gone by and make the film exquisite upon the eye, even if you don't understand what is going on. And understanding it is quite a challenge.

The story appears simple enough, at first. Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins), a draughtsman, is asked by Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), an aristocrat, to make 12 drawings of her husband's house. He agrees, as long as she pays him in sexual favours.

Copy picture

However, that is where simplicity ends. As Mr Neville begins his work, things start to appear around the estate that suggest some kind of misadventure. His refusal to interpret these random "clues" in his drawings, but simply records what he sees, puts him in grave danger.

Mrs Herbert's married daughter (Anne Louise Lambert) approaches the draughtsman, claiming her father has been murdered and that she has evidence to implicate him, which she will expose, unless he agrees to her own sexual demands.

Sex, lies and blackmail. An average day in the lives of the aristocracy.

As the film progresses, the plot weaves ever thicker and the tight ball of narrative, innuendo, allegory and artistry that Greenaway has wound becomes almost impossible to unravel. So I won't try; better to say what you can hope for in a single viewing.

The film is deftly shot, each scene composed as if it were a painting, using landscape, light and finery to full effect. It doesn't just look good. It also has a great sense of comedy that lifts it from the intellectual exclusivity of the arthouse, making it more accessible. Mr Neville's constant mockery of his patrons, the silliness of the sexual favours, the over-the-top costumes, not to mention the mischievous statue, alleviate a plot that otherwise would be heavy going.

On the surface, it is easy to see the formal gardens, flamboyant wardrobes and well delivered witticisms as a tool to lighten the tone, but if you look closer, it becomes apparent that Greenaway has used these elements to exaggerate the darker side of his characters, who are more concerned with visual displays of wealth and opulence than true human emotions, happy to see a body, whether alive or dead, as just another commodity, with which to strike a bargain.

The film can be enjoyed on a "one off watch," as an Agatha Christie-style country house murder mystery, but there is so much more to it, which only multiple viewings can reveal.

If you want to understand Greenaway, you'll have to beg, borrow or steal The Draughtsman's Contract and watch it again. And again.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2004
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A 17th century country house murder mystery, with sex, lies and a mischievous statue.
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Director: Peter Greenaway

Writer: Peter Greenaway

Starring: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne Louise Lambert, Neil Cunningham, Hugh Fraser, Dave Hill, David Gant

Year: 1982

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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