Starring: Anthony Higgins; Janet Suzman; Anne-Louise Lambert
Director: Peter Greenaway
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
Female power, property rights, art and patronage; these are just some of the concepts woven into Peter Greenaway’s debut feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract – these, plus an old edict that the British writer/director picked up from art school which states that you must draw what you see, not what you know. Working with actors for the first time, all on equal wages with the crew, Greenaway contrived to shroud his ideas in a saucy and visually exquisite ‘country house murder mystery’ set in seventeenth century England.
Actress Janet Suzman calls it a post restoration whodunit. She plays the lady of the house, Mrs. Herbert, who approaches the eponymous draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), with an offer to draw up twelve different views of the estate while her husband is off philandering. Harbouring an ingenious ulterior motive involving that most fecund of fruits, the pomegranate, she agrees to his demands to provide “unrestricted freedom of her most intimate hospitality” into the bargain. And so, the elaborate dance begins; servants, residents and aristocratic guests alike are all banished from the artists’ chosen perspectives to allow for accurate, unpopulated drawings of his subject while at the same time, providing the strictest of privacy for their down payments. Such a perfectionist is Mr. Neville, however, that details soon emerge in his work that incriminate him in his misadventures with both Mrs. Herbert and her daughter (Aussie actress Anne-Louise Lambert), and furthermore, signal him out as a prime suspect when the master of the mansion is found murdered.
With grand theatrical flourishes, the actors strut their stuff across the frame, bedecked in powdered wigs and wonderfully exaggerated period costumes. Their language too is decorative and highly formal, posing a challenge to contemporary audiences but one that is rewarded, especially on a second viewing. Greenaway assists with a full DVD commentary and an introduction in which he explains that, like his leading character, he too once drew an impressive old country house from various vantage points, moving his chair and associated paraphernalia to each one at a predetermined time of day. It was this insight into the artistic process that gave him the idea for his film’s rigid structure and allowed him to take such a complex flight of fancy within it.