Color, 1982, 107m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne-Louise Lambert
BFI (UK R2 PAL), Zeitgeist (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Wellspring (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
The only Peter Greenaway film designed to specifically evoke a certain British time period, The Draughtsman’s Contract appears on 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 compels him to chase sheep away from the 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 humour 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 equal 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 crucial plot points and explanations which would up on the cutting room floor, including a rationale for the living statue. Unfortunately, this version has not been screened since 1982 and may have been lost forever (if it doesn’t exist in one of Greenaway’s vaults somewhere). As far as the standard theatrical version goes, however, the DVD options easily outclass MGM’s muddy and cropped VHS version inherited from the United Artists library. The restored BFI disc (followed by an almost identical port over to the American release by Zeitgeist) restores the full breadth of the compositions, which is crucial with this title, and more significantly present the delicate colour schemes as originally intended. Michael Nyman’s ingenious, Purcel-inspired score sounds very good for straight mono, and dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout. You also get a typically eccentric but entertaining Greenaway audio commentary and video intro, archival footage of him chatting and working on the set, additional promotional interviews with Higgins and Suzman, a gallery of Greenaway’s drawings and publicity stills, the trailer, a (hidden) press book, and a glimpse of some of the deleted scenes.