The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) – Film Review
Director: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne-Louise Lambert
By Sarah Morgan
While some directors have a tendency to offer style over substance, Peter Greenaway has managed to combine both in a long and distinguished career.
Now 80 and living in Amsterdam, he’s a venerable old man of British cinema, a genuine auteur with an eye for a stunning visual as well as an ability to spin an enthralling yarn.
He certainly included both in his debut feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, which was originally released 40 years ago and has now undergone a restoration by the BFI. The result is a beautiful movie that looks even better than ever before – which is some accomplishment.
Originally produced for Channel 4 in the broadcaster’s early days, the film’s plot takes place in the late-17th century, during the reign of William and Mary. At its heart is the draughtsman of the title, Mr Neville, a skilled but somewhat unsavoury artist commissioned to draw 12 aspects of upper-class Mr Herbert’s family home.
“Manipulate the men”
Neville is initially reluctant to take the work, until Mrs Herbert, who is behind the commission, a gift for her husband to be completed while he’s away on business, agrees to provide him with, shall we say, regular ‘personal payments’. He also begins ‘servicing’ Mrs Herbert’s married but sex-starved daughter, who is desperate to have the child that will secure the family estate’s future.
Neville manages to upset everyone he meets via his brash and uncouth attitude, something he may regret after Mr Herbert is found dead in a moat, and the local gentry begin looking around for someone to blame…
Anthony Higgins plays the slimy artist with skill. He makes him physically attractive enough to be believable as an object of interest and/or lust, but just horrible enough to be repulsive, an unsettling dichotomy.
Janet Suzman matches him all the way as Mrs Herbert; the character and her daughter, played by Anne-Louise Lambert, are intelligent women trapped in an unhappy marriages due to the rules of the oppressive society in which they live. But rather than settling for a life of misery, they are not averse to using their sexuality to manipulate the men in their lives.
Watch out too for Hugh Fraser, later to be immortalised as the Belgian detective’s best friend Captain Hastings in ITV’s Poirot alongside David Suchet, and Lynda La Plante, in what must have been one of her final acting roles before turning to writing.
“Witty and entertaining”
But as strong as the performances are, it’s Greenaway’s screenplay (the film is basically a murder-mystery, albeit an unusual and enigmatic one) and direction that last long in the memory. While the former is witty and entertaining, the latter features some stunning visuals. The film may be set in the 1690s, but the images often look like something out of a Constable oil painting or a Turner watercolour.
Listen out too for Michael Nyman’s Henry Purcell-inspired score, which adds a frisson or two to Greenaway’s images; little wonder the director would turn to the composer regularly for the next 30-odd years of their careers.
Special features are aplenty, as you’d expect from a BFI release, with a documentary about Greenaway, made by his second wife, Saskia Boddeke, being a standout.
● Presented in High Definition
● Audio commentary by Peter Greenaway (2003)
● Introduction by Peter Greenaway (2003, 10 mins): the director discusses the genesis of The Draughtsman’s Contract, his creative choices and the film’s central themes
● Visions: A Film Comment by Angela Carter (1982, 21 mins): the novelist’s contemporary TV review of The Draughtsman’s Contract
● The Guardian Interview: Michael Nyman (2002, audio only, 7 mins): the composer discusses his work on The Draughtsman’s Contract
● The Greenaway Alphabet (2017, 60 mins): Saskia Boddeke’s deeply personal portrait of her husband Peter Greenaway, his art and his relationship with his daughter
● H is For House (1976, 9 mins): an early short film by Peter Greenaway
● A Walk Through H (1978, 42 mins): Greenaway’s short depicting the symbolic journey of an ornithologist through a mysterious bird-filled country
● Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981, 15 mins): Greenaway’s profile of the fashion designer
● Interviews with Janet Suzman, Peter Greenaway and Anthony Higgins (1981, 5 mins)
● Behind the scenes footage (1981, 5 mins)
● Deleted scenes and outtakes (1981, 11 mins total)
● Original theatrical trailer
● Restoration trailer (2022)
● Image gallery
● Illustrated booklet with a new Director’s Statement and a 2004 essay by Peter Greenaway; essays by Simon Barker, Robert Brown (from Sight and Sound, Winter 81/82) and Charlie Bridgen; notes on the special features and credits
The Draughtsman's Contract is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £24.99