Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 176 Contents

Socialist Review, June 1994

Chris Chilvers


Nothing is what it seems


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Draughtsman’s Contract
Dir: Peter Greenaway

Let me put my cards on the table. In my view, Peter Greenaway is among the most brilliant film directors to emerge in modern cinema. He is certainly one of the most challenging and controversial. His work tends to arouse either huge enthusiasm or bitter repulsion in his audience. This is not just a product of the content of his films but of his method. The Draughtsman’s Contract is no exception.

Released in 1982, and now re-released, this film has all the hallmarks of Greenaway’s writing and direction. The plot is both complex and compelling. Mr Neville, an artist, is persuaded by the mistress of a great country estate to paint 12 views of the main house. They enter into a contract, in which Neville’s price is not merely full board and a cash sum, but daily ‘pleasure’ with the mistress, Mrs Herbert. This is not to her liking, but she agrees.

Her husband, a disgusting, offensive ‘head of the household’ is apparently away in Southampton. He is soon found murdered in the moat. A mystery then develops as to who killed him and why. The plot is unravelled in a humorous and vicious climax.

Set in the summer of 1694, the film benefits from wonderful views of a southern English estate as the painter goes about his work. However, the setting is far more deliberate than beautiful scenery. Greenaway, as in his works since, attacks ideas and questions far deeper than the outline of the plot suggests. Firstly, there is constant reference to the politics of the day. Neville is a Catholic who retains feudal values despite living in the aftermath of the English Revolution of the 1640s and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which had finally consolidated capitalist rule in Britain. Politics largely expressed itself in terms of religion. Thus William of Orange, who came to power as king in 1688, was Protestant, as opposed to the deposed James II, a Catholic.

Neville rages against the other house guests, who attack Catholicism. Mr Herbert refuses to allow carp in his moat as they live too long and thus ‘remind him of Catholics’. Asking about a child roaming the grounds, a guest explains to Neville how the child came to be an ‘orphan’, to which Neville squeals, ‘An orphan, madam, because his mother became a Catholic?’

There is also a display of the decadence and conceit of the emerging ruling class. They are driven by a vulgar concern for material wealth and constantly scheme and conspire against each other. Gossip and rumour abound. Mr Herbert is reputed to have wanted a ‘pantheon of reservoirs around the house because he was afraid of fire’.

There are two central female characters, Mrs Herbert and her daughter, Mrs Sarah Thalmann. As in Greenaway’s subsequent films, the women are the most powerful participants. Greenaway tackles women’s oppression in a very intelligent way, with a number of themes. The contract with Mr Neville, due to which Mrs Herbert suffers humiliation, clearly alludes to a feature of class society in which a woman’s body and sex in general are turned into a form of currency.

However, as the plot progresses, this relationship changes. Neville’s assumption that women are helpless fodder for his sexual ego is dealt a severe blow by Sarah Thalmann’s second contract, in which he is used.

The denial of the right of inheritance to women is also taken up. Mr Herbert has only a daughter, Sarah, and refuses her the estate on his death. Sarah is thus locked into a race to have a male child, to win the family wealth. Her husband is ‘as impotent by day, as you are by night’ and so she schemes with her mother. Both show a powerful wit, employing the most withering insults for their adversaries. It is a joy to watch them hatch plot after plot, without anyone understanding their motives.

The clearest satire in this film is an assault on realist art, as practised to lunatic proportions by the arrogant, headstrong draughtsman. Neville wants his art to be perfect copying of the landscape, as he dictates it. His role is ‘never to distort or dissemble’. All humans, unless completely still, are banned from the area and he even chases sheep out of the field to paint a view.

The film’s most important principle is that nothing is what it seems. There is no straightforward subject, or even observation. It is all a question of interpretation and of looking below the surface. This is alluded to, in comic fashion, as the gardener’s apprentice has an obsession for pretending to be statues.

The musical score by Michael Nyman is worth noting, as it is unlike soundtracks in most films. Based on work by the English composer, Henry Purcell, who died in 1695 in odd circumstances, Nyman provides a motor of classical music, which is as much a feature of this film as Greenaway’s direction.

By comparison with Greenaway’s other films, The Draughtsman’s Contract seems a bit tame. His later films become starker, more vicious in content and more awesome.

However, it is a must for anyone who wants to see a thought provoking and polemical film. As you watch Neville’s paintings burning at the end, remember what is being said. All the certainties, prejudices and perfections of the old order are being cast onto the bonfire. It happened in the 1600s, and it will happen again. A look below the surface will reveal just that.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 4 May 2017