Revisiting a Gruesome and Powerful Masterpiece in The Cook, the Thief, the Wife and her Lover (1989)

the cook, the thief, and the lover
Plagued by censorship disputes, Peter Greenaway’s visceral and incendiary revenge drama still has the power to astonish over 25 years after its release.

The eponymous ‘Cook’ is the charming French chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer), the ‘Thief’ is Albert Spica, a horrifyingly brutal crook played with contemptible repulsiveness by an excellent Michael Gambon (look away Harry Potter fans, this is not the Dumbledore that you want to see). The ‘Wife’ of Albert is Georgina Spica, a staggeringly good Helen Mirren, and her ‘Lover’ is the quiet and resigned bookworm, Michael (Alan Howard).

This is a film about revenge, it is the thread that holds the entire story together: Georgina is looking for love and sexual release away from her husband in an effort to get her own back on the years of abuse and neglect. Upon finding out about his wife’s passionate affair, Albert seeks savage vengeance, and finally, in the film’s third and final act, society seeks revenge on Albert and his selfish and indulgent lifestyle, in an unforgettably barbarous climax.
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Split into three distinctive acts, Greenaway’s film has the aura of a brutal and grandiose Shakespearean play. the entire story takes place in and around a rather expensive looking restaurant. The camera rolls elegantly, almost seamlessly at times between three connected locations: the restaurant, the kitchen, and the car park. This filming technique donates a sense of claustrophobia; we feel (like Georgina and her lover) that is there no escape from Albert’s maniacal dictatorship. The film was shot entirely on one singular stage at Elstree studios, which is a remarkable feat in terms of stage production and set design, and several scenes appear to have been shot in as minimal cuts as possible, which only further enhances this feeling that you’re watching a play, rather than a film.

I suppose you could try and pin these three locales to religious connotations – the restaurant being heaven, the kitchen is purgatory, and the gloomy car park outside is hell. Or perhaps all three locations represent a mere gateway to hell. With minimal exceptions, there seems to be very few redeeming characters in this restaurant that seems frozen from time and space entirely, the whole scenario feels like something J G Ballard might have conjured up with his nightmarish vision of the future.
the, cook, thief and lover
There is however something much more sinister at play from director Peter Greenaway, Albert Spica, the eponymous thief and his cronies represent the upper echelons of society, the rich elite that are rude and offensively wasteful. Every night, they dine at the elegant restaurant, gauging on the endless feast that is placed in front of them. An endless feast that is provided to them by ‘the cook’, the dutiful citizens of the land who get by with their jobs and pay checks, all the while being looked down on by the aristocratic establishment, an establishment that treats them like nothing but cattle. You can be in the presence of this elite class, but if you put a foot wrong, you will be humiliated, thrown out of the restaurant into the gloomy car park, never to be seen again. Made in the late 1980’s, this is an extreme attack on Thatcherism, one that comes boiling out of an angry and fed-up mind in the shape of director Peter Greenaway.

Amongst the angry political undertones and clear protest against Thatcher’s government, you almost forget lies a beautifully crafted piece of film.

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Each locale is accustomed to a different colour palette: the restaurant is lavished with a constant red glow that permeates everything, even the patron’s clothes and it almost feels like a Lynchian setting. The bathroom in which the wife first encounters her lover is lit with a bright, almost blinding whiteness. The kitchen has somewhat of a green tint to it, and the car park offers a neon glow to the proceedings, and perhaps has its routes in the murkiness of Film Noir’s lonely streets.

The story unfolds in this timeless fashion, there is no sense of time other than in the menus of the day that are handed to us like a silent film’s intertitles, offering us a small appetizer to break us from the relentless and horrific vileness of Albert and his gang. The setting seems to be London (on account of the accents), but the time is never revealed, it feels like some dystopian horror although the cars are clearly from the 80’s. The film certainly has allusions to Kubrick’s nightmarish dystopia of A Clockwork Orange, this is due in part to the focus on classical music in the soundtrack. But Albert and his cronies also feel not too dissimilar to Alex and his Droogs, and even their outfits have similarities, the groups wear practically matching suits with one another and don large leather boots to ensure maximum violence and bloodshed.
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Wedged in between the violence and despair are brief moments of beauty in the form of Georgina and Michael’s passionate love scenes. These moments are stunningly shot and are incredibly romantic and believable, I don’t recall love scenes as passionate as these since Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). These sensual moments offer a sense of hope and salvation in this grim tale, but they are always cut short by the booming and brash voice of Albert coming from the distance, like one of the giants from Jack and the Beanstalk. The narrative is utterly relentless, each night, Albert and Georgina arrive at the restaurant accompanied by his thuggish gang. Each night Georgina and the rest of the restaurant’s visitors are mentally and physically abused by the tyrant that is Albert. It is only until Georgina and Michael first make love that the relentless narrative is slowed down to offer the viewer a chance to breathe, and to remember that there is hope for these characters yet.

Although appearing to be just a political attack on Thatcherism and the state of the UK government in the 1980’s, Peter Greenaway unwittingly achieved something much more, he created a powerful, and brutally beautiful masterpiece that has stood the test of time.

Josh Hall

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