Color, 1982, 107 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne-Louise Lambert
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Zeitgeist (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), HanWay (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Arthaus (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Wellspring (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

The only Peter Greenaway The Draughtsman's Contractfilm designed as a British period piece, The Draughtsman’s Contract appears The Draughtsman's Contracton the surface like some twisted Restoration comedy filled with scheming aristocrats and clever turns of phrase. One of the most enthusiastically received and controversial feature debuts of the early ‘80s, this remained Greenaway’s most high profile effort for eight years until The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover secured his position in the art house pantheon. However, Draughtsman actually has much in common with his later work, ranging from the bizarre background details, such as a nude living statue, to the brutal, jarring twist ending.

At a gossipy dinner party, an arrogant young draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Higgins), is enlisted by the middle-aged Mrs. Herbert (Suzman) to execute twelve drawings of the Herbert estate as a surprise gift for her loutish husband, who is usually away on business. In exchange, Mrs. Herbert will go along with Mr. Neville’s sexual demands, once for each drawing. Mrs. Herbert’s daughter (Lambert) becomes more than a little intrigued by the arrangement and enters into a similar bargaining position with Neville, whose fussiness with the layout of each drawing The Draughtsman's Contractcompels him to chase sheep away from The Draughtsman's Contractthe scenery and demand passers-by to wear the same clothing each day. However, some inconsistencies in the day to day arrangement of seemingly familiar objects, such as linen and open windows, cause Neville to wonder whether Mr. Herbert is actually away on business... or perhaps is no longer among the living.

As with many Greenaway films, all of the characters are more pieces of a diabolical mind puzzle than living, breathing human beings, bereft even of first names, and the cast gamely acts accordingly. As Neville, Higgins (also in Vampire Circus and Flavia the Heretic under the name Anthony Corlan) has one of his most memorable roles and finds the humor in an essentially repellent character. Without giving too much away, the various layers of the narrative may prove off-putting to viewers who expect to find some redeeming qualities unveiled at the end of the film; there will be no redemption or clever moralizing here. As a document of a historical period, Draughtsman is remarkably convincing, particularly considering its virtually nonexistent budget. The costumes, scenery, and stylish lighting manage to rival Barry Lyndon with a fraction of the resources, while Greenaway’s intricate and biting script should keep English majors chortling with delight. Interestingly, his original festival cut of the film ran a full three hours and reportedly contained a number of plot points and explanations that would up on the cutting room floor, The Draughtsman's Contractincluding a rationale for the living statue. Unfortunately this version has not been screened since The Draughtsman's Contract1982; Greenaway has claimed in the past to have all this material, though it hasn't surfaced anywhere yet.

The first accessible home video release of this film was a terribly muddy and cropped VHS from MGM/UA in 1991 inherited via the United Artists library. That was followed by a poor Winstar / Fox Lorber DVD in 2001, also skippable. The restored BFI DVD in 2004 (followed by an almost identical port over to the American release by Zeitgeist in 2007) restores the full breadth of the compositions, which is crucial with this title, and more significantly present the delicate color schemes as originally intended. Michael Nyman’s ingenious, Purcel-inspired score sounds very good for straight mono, and dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout (with a French dub included as well plus Dutch and French subs). You also get a typically eccentric but entertaining Greenaway audio commentary and video intro (9m56s), archival footage of him chatting and working on the set (5m30s) for the pomegranate scene, additional promotional interviews with Higgins and Suzman (4m55s), a gallery of Greenaway’s drawings and publicity stills, the trailer, a (hidden) press book, a Guardian interview with Michael Nyman (6m39s) from 2002, and a glimpse of some of the deleted scenes ("Chair," "Rain," "Misadventure," "Watercress").

The Draughtsman's ContractThe The Draughtsman's ContractBFI and Zeitgeist DVD releases were followed by several editions including a Japanese Blu-ray from HanWay (featuring all the DVD extras but inexplicably looking washed out and very desaturated), and a reportedly awful German Blu-ray that wasn't available for comparison. In 2022, the BFI reissued the film as a limited theatrical engagement and a two-disc Blu-ray set featuring a tremendously improved transfer from a fresh 4K restoration by the BFI National Archive. Colors are more vibrant but convincing (especially the reds and greens) while the whites have far more gradation than before, revealing details in paper texture and clouds that simply weren't there before. The LPCM 2.0 English mono track is also in mint condition and comes with optional English SDH subtitles as well as an audiodescriptive track (which can get very funny at times for reasons you can imagine) and a German dub and subs. The first disc also retains the original commentary, Peter Greenaway video intro, on-set footage and interviews, behind the scenes footage, the original and 2022 restoration trailers, and an expanded 4m9s gallery. Interestingly, all four deleted scenes are present here-- but you get two outtakes as well showing lengthy, bright views of the fatal aftermaths of the two homicides in the film.

Disc two consists entirely of bonus features with the centerpiece being The Greenaway Alphabet (60m25s), a marvelous 2017 documentary by his wife, Saskia Boddeke, showing Greenaway and his daughter, Pip (who goes from 15 to 16 years old during production), bonding over an A-Z conversation in The Draughtsman's Contractvarious locations. It gets quite sweet and confessional at times, bookended with ruminations on his comment about killing himself when he reaches the age of 80 and running through everything from the benefits of living in The Draughtsman's ContractAmsterdam to his inability to swim and her coping with learning about romantic heartbreak the hard way. The 2002 Nyman interview is carried over here, while legendary novelist and essayist Angela Carter provides an outstanding analysis of the film from a 1982 episode of the Channel 4 series Visions. She's so magnetic and full of life here that it seems almost impossible to think that she would be gone a decade later. Two Greenaway shorts previously available on DVD collections are here since they bear aesthetic connections to the main feature: 1976's H Is For House (8m48s), a stylized inventory of a family's countryside residence, and 1978's A Walk Through H (42m13s), a quirky chronicle about an ornithologist and a series of bird-fixated drawings accompanied by an early Nyman score. The latter short appears to be a recent restoration and looks much better here than before. Previously available on the BFI's highly recommended double Blu-ray set The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films, 1981's Insight: Zandra Rhodes (14m39s) is a very Greenaway-esque portrait of the famed U.K. fashion designer at work and traveling abroad as he dives into her creative process. It's one of the flashiest things he ever directed with some visual and aural ideas that would later turn up again in The Pillow Book. The first pressing also comes with a 40-page insert booklet featuring new essays by Greenaway, Simon Barker, William Fowler and Charlie Bridgen, plus notes on the bonus films by William Fowler and Josephine Botting.

BFI Blu-ray

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HanWay Blu-ray

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Updated review on December 7, 2022.