Criminally Neglected: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover

Blake gives an elusive score to a criminally neglected film.

"Do you like my beard? And do you
like that we match? Do you like my
heavy accent? No?"
I think we can all agree that the plentiful annals of the Netflix streaming library are the textbook definition of “hit-and-miss”. Odds are they won’t have the films you’re looking for, but if a sudden overabundance of Food Network content is your bag, then game on. The searches sometimes seem to go on forever, but every once in a while you’ll come across a forgotten gem that introduces you to a film with the capacity to redefine what we view as cinema. You get introduced to a filmmaker who embodies the auteur theory as if it was based on his memoirs. I’m talking about Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. If there ever was a film that deserved this site’s highest rating, this is it. So here it comes: Number one, with a bloody bullet.

From the very first frame, this feels like Theater (yes, with a capital T): Bombastic, brimming with atmospheric artifice, larger than life, over the top, and I mean all of those things in the best sense, with the utmost affection. The sets make no attempt at creating realism, the cinematography by the brilliant Sacha Vierny is colorful and surreal, and the music by the gifted Michael Nyman sets the stage for an opera. All of it is brought together by four towering performances from the eponymous title characters.

Helen Mirren is positively ravishing, exuding sensuous vulnerability as the Wife. Her Lover, played with calm confidence and intelligence by Alan Howard, brings sly humor and understanding to a role that requires his total silence for the first third of the film’s runtime. Richard Bohringer’s Cook is their confidant as they begin a romance in complete and utter defiance of a frothing villain who ranks in the upper echelon’s of cinema’s ultimate bad guys.

This brings me to Michael Gambon’s performance as the Thief, which is the stuff of legend. If you come into this only knowing him as the guy who replaced Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise, you are in for the shock of your ever-loving existence. This is one of the most cold-blooded, dick-swinging, profanely absurd, repugnant characters ever created. To see Gambon in this role is to live in a perpetual state of awe and sick wonder. If there is such a thing as a human train wreck that you can’t look away from, Gambon is both the train and its psychotic conductor, steering himself and all around him into hopeless oblivion with vindictive abandon. He commands every corner of the screen for every second that he is on it. Just when you think he can’t possibly become a more horrendous human being, he tops himself and resets the bar. That he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for this performance is nothing short of a travesty.

"Well then, fork you!!!"
To know the title of the film is to know the story, but only by experiencing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover can you succumb the completely unique spell it weaves. Films like this come along once or twice a decade. Peter Greenaway is a master of the medium, creating each moment and nuance as if it were spun directly from the thread of inspiration, but never directing so closely that he upstages his own carefully set stage. All of the technical and story elements conspire for perfection, and this is one of the only times I can say it was achieved. There is not a frame that doesn’t work, not a note that feels out of place, not one second where Greenaway loses his grip on our attention. Simply put, this is a masterpiece.

When the film is not compelling knowing grins from the audience with Greenaway’s impeccable dialogue, it’s getting nods of appreciation for the meticulously planned tracking shots that will sometimes include as many as three wardrobe changes for the actors, seamlessly integrated through razor-sharp editing. When Greenaway isn’t serenading us with grandiose and hypnotic imagery, he is assaulting us with a full frontal sexual audacity that was unheard of in 1989. By the time it’s all over, all we can do is grin and sigh with gratitude. We’ve been thrown for a loop, straight into the heavens, and I’m still looking for the ground.

Footnote: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is still available in high definition on Netflix streaming. If you haven’t yet seen it, why are you still reading? Go watch it! NOW!

10/10 -Blake O. Kleiner