The Draughtsman's Contract was writer/director Peter Greenaway's first feature film. And this 1982 period-drama is still one of the finest movies of his career.
Drama? Or black comedy? Traditional English drawing-room (well, gardens and bedroom) mystery, or a witty 20th century analysis of late 17th century society, politics and art theory?
Well, The Draughtsman's Contract is all of those things. This is a movie about an outsider, landscape artist Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins), who is commissioned by Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) to draw 12 architectural sketches of her grand country home and its gardens, as a present for her husband, who has gone to Southampton for a fortnight.
Mr Neville has a more attractive prospect in another county, and initially declines the commission. But he is badgered so heavily that he eventually agrees, though naming a price so high that he is sure the commission will be withdrawn. Eight pounds per drawing, plus the pleasure each day of sexual dalliance with Mrs Herbert. To his surprise, she accepts.
And the drama/comedy/mystery draws out from there. I can reveal one essential background detail which does not spoil the outcome - this movie is set in a very brief time at the end of the 17th century when enlightened legislation had made it not only possible for women to own property in their own right, but for other women to inherit that property, instead of it passing to the nearest male heir. This radical change in law did not persist for long... but it makes the entire premise of The Draughtsman's Contract possible.
We are seeing also in this movie the keen eye and mind of a visual artist - which was Peter Greenaway's calling before he turned to film. And a key artistic philosophical question is at the core of this movie - does an artist paint what he sees, or what he knows? Or, given a choice of those two stances, can Mr Neville make the right choice?
Delicious performances by Anthony Higgins and Janet Suzman, along with Anne-Louise Lambert as Mrs Herbert's beautiful but calculating daugher Mrs Talmann and Hugh Fraser as her priggish, smug husband, make this movie a total joy. And Anthony Greenaway's fine eye for composition and painterly detail illuminates the entire movie.
Superb digital restoration now brings this art house masterpiece to a new audience. This is a densely layered movie of immense appeal, which deserves repeated viewings.
Peter Greenaway shot this movie, which was funded by the British Film Institute, on 16mm film stock, which was blown-up to 35mm for exhibition.
The film elements were allowed to degrade considerably, but the British Film Institute, for this release (our local Madman release is a copy of the BFI UK release) has done a wonderful job in film restoration. Colours are well-saturated, tonal definitions are clear and the overall effect is as if seeing a brand new, virgin print. This anamorphic transfer is, by all accounts, vastly superior to the Region 1 version.
Michael Nyman's atmospheric score is rendered very well in two-channel mono sound, and dialogue has excellent clarity.
There is also a dubbed French soundrack, which has a very poor hollow sound, and which shows just how bad a deteriorated soundtrack could have been.
All technical aspects - audio synch, dialogue levels - have been presented in optimal quality, when the original recording conditions are considered. This was a low-budget art house movie, not a blockbuster; with that in mind, we're given everything we need for maximum enjoyment of a fine movie.