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

Written & Directed by Peter Greenaway

I don’t have much background on this film here. I can’t have much to say about the writer/director, Peter Greenaway. It’s funny, for some reason I always sort of thought he was Australian for some reason, but come to find out he is British instead. There are a few notable actors involved here: Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, who most nowadays probably know as Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, which is important to know going into this film mostly because it makes for a more effective shock when you find out he is the worst character in the film.

Gambon plays Albert Spica, who would be the “thief” of the title. Spica owns his own French restaurant, where he eats dinner every night with his beautiful wife, Georgina (Mirren). But Albert is a man with a temper and is always talking, which leaves Georgina to just sit there, that is until she eyes the man across the restaurant whose nose is always buried in a book. Bored, Georgina makes it a point to rendezvous with the man every night in the bathroom or the kitchen. But when Albert finds out about what is going on, Georgina must hideout with her lover, Michael, but Albert and his temper are to be reckoned with.

When the film started out I felt like it might be a bit of a long event until I was able to close the book on the film. The first thing that struck me was the set design, which looked fake enough and overly big therefore making me dismiss it almost immediately. Then there was the, not necessarily fast talking, but blabber mouth Albert character, and I felt as though it might rise to more than just an annoyance. I didn’t know where it was headed, or how convoluted some gangster plot might unfold. Then they made their way into the restaurant, sitting at the table simply eating and continuing to listen to Albert talk about this and that. Finally I noticed the score of the film, and that is when my attention was grabbed, and when everything began to turn around.

The music score is plenty enough to carry the whole film, which is a very impressive statement to make, but I was fully engrossed entirely by the score which was one of the best I have heard, at least recently. Michael Nyman is to be commended. But what was more impressive was just how the film began to grow on me. When I was at first annoyed by the fairly fake sets which seemed to big to be realistic, now began to compliment the mood, especially the colors. When I was first annoyed by the character of Albert who seemed a caricature, now began to be, well, a caricature which fit perfectly into the story which was unfolding of the affair between Georgina and Michael. And Michael Gambon in that role is fantastic for being able to keep the energy throughout the performance to deliver those overly verbose outrages.

For a film to grow like that, however, credit must be given to the writer/director Peter Greenaway, whose work I had not previously seen. Each event slowly but surely evolves the plot into something much more than the simple idea of a woman cheating on her husband. I was fairly surprised by the vulgarity of the film with both the nudity and the implications of the ending, which is not for the faint of heart or the prude. But it all seemed necessary for the story being told, so in reality it did not bother me, and in fact the ending was brilliant in its own twisted way. In the end the film grew enough on me to be able to say that I was enjoying myself with the ridiculousness of the film. I am strangely looking forward to more Greenaway, though I also almost feel like I shouldn’t be for some reason.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

One comment

  • I think its important to keep in mind that everything in the film has symbolic importance and therefore the sets, dialogue, costume, music should not be taken at face value but understood instead for their symbolic value. Greenaway isn't telling a story about a nerd who gets in trouble for screwing a gangsters wife. He's telling a richly symbolic tale about the death of democratic Britain under the thumb of Thatcher and her cronies and pointing the finger of blame at all parties involved. From the Iron Lady herself (the their) to the cuckold left (the lover) that stood by lost in their intellectual fantasies while the barbarians turned citizens into consumers to the fence sitters (the wife) who wanted the spoils that come with class victory but who secretly loathed the practices of those who delivered the spoils to them. Its a fascinating, uncompromising polemic that's proved only too prescient given the developments of the past decade or so.

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