A review of the 1982 classic film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”

Most critics really admire the work of British writer and director Peter Greenaway and “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, his first major feature, is regarded as a classic. However, I always thought that I would find his films too odd and avoided them. Yet, when my brother recommended that I view a 40th anniversary re-mastered version, I took an opportunity to see it at the British Film Institute. I could see why some admire it but I found it an unsatisfactory experience.

Set in 1694, the whole story is shot in and around an English country house which is, in fact, Groombridge Place, located outside Tunbridge Wells and built in 1662. The eponymous draughtsman or artist is Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) and the contract, to produce 12 drawings of the house in return for a sizeable sum and sexual favours, is placed by Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), the wife of the home’s owner.

The film is visually and aurally impressive: the house and gardens of course, the costumes and wigs by Sue Blane, and the Purcell-inspired music by Michael Nyman. And the composition by former artist Greenaway is splendid with each scene looking like a picture (Greenaway even did the sketches himself) and the acting and dialogue are incredibly theatrical.

The main problem, for me, is that cinema is different from art and theatre and this work lacks the fluidity that is at the heart of a great film. The British director David Lean was a master of both composition and fluidity but Greenaway’s work is both ponderous and pompous. Furthermore, again for me, the narrative does not work with too much unexplained. All the characters are manipulative and I felt that the whole thing was cold.


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