The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

The Draughtsman’s Contract first published by Movie Gazette, 12 February 2004

After many years working as a documentary editor at the Central Office of Information, and over a decade making experimental mockumentaries (collected in The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 and The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 2), Peter Greenaway decided to turn his hand to a feature film whose characters for the first time deliver their lines to one another rather than to the camera. The result is The Draughtsman’s Contract, which managed to bring together many of Greenaway’s abstruse intellectual obsessions into their most accessible form yet, marking the beginning of his long career (recently revived with The Tulse Luper Suitcases) as Britain’s best known arthouse director.

The date is 1694. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) engages the talents of Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young, arrogant draughtsman, in an unorthodox contract: in return for making twelve drawings of the Herberts’ Wiltshire estate – drawings supposedly intended as a conciliatory gift to Virginia’s estranged and absent husband – Neville insists on being paid with daily sexual access to Virginia very much on his own terms, and is soon also erotically entangled with Virginia’s more forward and willing daughter (Anne-Louise Lambert). As the days progress, suggestive items start to appear in the house’s environs, which Neville faithfully draws into his pictures, as he himself is drawn into the developing picture of an extended household troubled by ambition, lust, jealousy and greed. When a corpse is found, Neville realises that, while everyone apparently has a motive for murder, he himself has also been placed in the frame by his own drawings which have all too successfully captured the innermost secrets of the house.

In The Draughtsman’s Contract, Greenaway ploughs the familiar landscape of the murder mystery, but plants in it new, exotic fruits all of his own. For while there certainly is an unnatural death in a genteel country setting, this film, with its arch, pun-riddled dialogue, its exquisite painterly mise-en-scène, its exaggerated Restoration costumes and its considerable intellectual heft, is miles away from Agatha Christie territory. Classical allusions, historical curiosities, architectural follies and sexual liberties all combine to create an enigma which, in a plot full of theoretical reflections on the difference between seeing and knowing, is an exuberant if knotty entertainment as much for the mind as for the eye.

The wilful jauntiness of Michael Nyman’s sublime score (an all-time best), based on motifs lifted from Purcell, offers a deliciously ironic counterpoint to the events onscreen. The visual composition is simply stunning (in a film about visual composition and framing), and the script is so dizzyingly crammed with wit, conceit, insult, allusion, innuendo and equivocation that it will amply reward any number of revisits. Indeed, as is only appropriate for a film about a set of images which have to be interpreted and reinterpreted many times to follow the labyrinthine trail of infidelity and murder encoded within them, you may well find yourself needing to view The Draughtsman’s Contract itself more than once to appreciate all its secret nooks and crannies, and to cast some light onto its obscure solution.

strap: Peter Greenaway’s wittily erudite Restoration murder mystery places an arrogant illustrator in his own frame.

Anton Bitel