The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

cook, thief, wife & lover
Gangster Albert (Michael Gambon) takes his wife Georgie (Helen Mirren) and his gang of cronies to the haute cuisine restaurant he owns, but which is run by chef Richard (Richard Bohringer). Albert is a bully, oafish and vicious, though with pretensions to culture, and his seemingly meek wife catches the eye of bookish loner Michael (Alan Howard) on a nearby table and begins to find ways to leave Albert’s table and begin a torrid, and very dangerous, affair, aided in covering this up from Albert by chef Richard and a few of his staff.

I loved The Draughtman’s Contract, probably Greenaway’s other ‘big’ movie but I found it very hard to like this one. Gambon’s portrayal of the gangster is so overwhelming, so bullying, so big, that it is difficult to put up with him with for such a long portion of the running time (2 hours) of the film, though this is, of course, emblematic of what Georgie is having to put up with. Also, Georgie and Michael’s affair is so purely sexual – they don’t speak at all until several trysts have elapsed – that it is hard to care much about their relationship. And the set design is so stylised, so red and operatic (there is even a boy soprano working as a kitchen helper whose singing acts as the musical backdrop for much of the time) that there is little sense of realism to help me care. I believe the operatic sense was entirely intentional but it does distance the characters for me.

I won’t spoil the ending here, though the nature of it is one of the most well-known in cinema; I was aware of it in a general sense, though not its specifics, and when it arrived it had real power. I just wish that getting there hadn’t felt so much of a ‘worthy’ effort.


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