John C Adams Reviews 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover'
Updated: Jun 7
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
(dir Peter Greenaway, 1989)
I saw this film when it came out and can honestly say it was one of the most vivid cinema-going experiences I've ever had. Peter Greenaway films can be hard to categorise, something that often makes me wonder about the wisdom of attempting to pigeonhole creative endeavour. Many of his films are towards the fantastical end of the spectrum, whereas 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' is more of a crime drama with dystopian undertones.
Over the years, Greenaway has directed so many films known for their powerful cinematographic imagery that it doesn't come as a surprise to learn that he originally trained in art, in fact at Walthamstow College of Art in north London. That's an area of London I know really well. More surprising was the discovery that he worked for the UK government in their Central Office for Information for fifteen years as a film editor and director. He moved from there to directing his first feature length film, 'The Falls', in 1980. By 1989, he already had astonishing films such as 'A Zed and Two Noughts' (1985) and 'Drowning by Numbers' (1988) behind him and the stage was set for him to direct a high-budget film starring the best of British actors.
The film stars Michael Gambon as the thief (Albert Spica) and Helen Mirren (Georgina Spica) as his wife. Theirs was a vivid onscreen coupling, and I could never subsequently see him on screen without gently shivering. I'm pretty sure this wasn't what the casting agents for the Harry Potter franchise had in mind for Dumbledore, and this reaction went into overdrive when I saw them together again in Gosford Park as the lord of the manor and the housekeeper he secretly impregnated three decades earlier.
Spica takes over a high-class French restaurant and dines there nightly to flaunt his ownership, treating staff and diners alike with bullying rudeness. In response, his wife starts an affair with one of the restaurant's regulars, a bookshop owner. Food is presented as the medium of their growing love, as are books. A disturbing inversion of the connection between food and books occurs when Spica has his wife's lover murdered with particularly sadistic cruelty. Georgina's response to her lover's death is even more unsettling yet at the same time oddly empowering as the violence between the titular characters escalates.
I loved the way this film presented powerful themes to run alongside the tense, action-filled plot. The link between books (feed the mind) and food (sustain the body) was well developed. The feelings between Georgina and her lover were both physical and emotional; and the books and food they consumed together stood as physical emblems of the dual nature of love. Spica, as ruthless businessman for whom physical violence is his first resort in dealing with anyone who crosses him, was a tour de force from Gambon. He's an immensely varied and talented actor, terrifying in this role but equally capable of being loveable and amusing as a red-cheeked country squire in the TV adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Wives and Daughters' a few years later. Mirren's performances are always special, and her vulnerable yet vengeful role of wife in this film stayed with me long after my first viewing.
'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' was an immensely disturbing film to see in the cinema, and when I watched in again on DVD recently it was a scarcely less uncomfortable experience. Good. In a world of blockbusters that often feel functionally identical, the world needs more films like this.
Thank you for joining me for the last in a week-long special of eating-themed blogs. Please share your thoughts on any film you've enjoyed that involved eating in the comments section below. I'd love to hear your viewing suggestions!
Many thanks to photographer Tinpalace for providing the cover image for this blog via freeimages.com