The Draughtsman’s Contract – A Review 29 Years On

As part of my determination to take full advantage of a free two month membership of Lovefilm, I’ve been trying out the films available through their streaming service.  These films truly fall into that category of ‘missed years ago at the cinema and since also missed on several showings on television’.

A great lacuna in my experience of movies has been ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, primarily because I distinctly remember trying to see it at the cinema not long after I moved to London.  I failed, largely because I’d not long been in London and, in those pre-internet days, hadn’t yet worked out how to find out where it was on.

I also, somewhat oddly, recall it being the answer to a round in Charades at a Christmas party in a house in Palmers Green.  Everyone assumed, as a fringe, art house type film it would be tricky for the opposing team to identify, but they simply mimed air flowing underneath the door, and the round was over.

It’s a Peter Greenaway film, so I knew to expect visual sumptuousness, stylised acting, an offbeat narrative, and something nasty at the end.  And all of these elements were delivered.

In truth, I’m not sure I entirely followed the story, the tale of an arrogant young artist hired by the wife of a wealthy landowner to draw her husband’s estate.  As part of the consideration for his services, he demands private time with the lady during which he may use her as he pleases.  When sketching, he draws exactly what he sees, so when strange and unexpected objects begin to appear in the landscape and are incorporated in the pictures, they assume increased significance when the body of the landowner is discovered in the moat.

Set in the Enlightenment period, every scene is beautiful, ostensibly lit by candles, bringing to mind the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright of Derby, although everything is more lavish and more ostentatious.  The faces glow between towering white wigs and extravagant frills and frou-frous on collars and bodices.

And then there’s the music.  Familiar music that is frequently used on television or radio to conjure the spirit of the Enlightenment, which  I thought was of the period, by Purcell or Handel, but it turns out Michael Nyman wrote it specifically for this film.

Many of the scenes are framed by the wooden rectangle that the draughtsman is using to delineate his drawing, and as the film progresses we see how additional details, shadings and features are added to the sketches.  The act of looking and recording becomes one of the key motifs of the film.  Is what we see real?  And even knowing that the answer is ‘no’, how much is intended artifice?

I really enjoyed seeing the drawings develop – they are just the kind of sketches that I wish I could do; the idea of which led me to do a learning to draw class earlier this year.  So inspired by the movie, I’ve signed up for another short course later this month…..

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  1. Rowena,

    I wonder if he could find the funding or any audience for such a complex and art looks at art type movie nowadays. Self reverence is both a curse and a joy in art, and one reason why audiences avoid complexity and duality of purpose like the plague.

    TDC was an amazing bit of work, I recall watching it two or three times in a row to try to glean what I could from it, without much success I have to admit. I often wonder what a subject-starved Hollywood would do with a modern look at it. Dreadful thought.

    A sumptuous feast for the eyes, a less salubrious taste left in the brain.

    As dreadful as this may seem, I used to use art-movies on new dates to find out if a prospective partner was suitable for further investigation. Peter Greenaway would usually catch them out.

    Hey, don’t be too critical, a night at the ballet or opera was far more expensive and they’d cloak disappointment in the ritual of dressing up:)


    • Was it successful as a strategy? ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover’ would have been an unusual first date movie!

      It did make me think of all the slightly odd/ambitious films I saw when I first came to London in the 80s – lots of French things as well as Greenaway , Terence Davies and others whose names escape me…and now I’ve reminded myself of ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’; I wonder how that’s stood the test of time? Last real art house film I saw was the execrable ‘Tree of Life’…..but I live in hope.

      • “Was it successful as a strategy?”


        LOL, No:) That harder I tried to arrange relationships, the worse they got. My life was a succession of shorties until I met Susan by complete accident. It did keep disco divas away.

        “Last real art house film I saw was the execrable ‘Tree of Life’…..but I live in hope.”

        Brad Pitt is usually a bad start, but he is occasionally in something worth the time. “Babel,” if you have the time is rewarding.

        Another decent movie, if you have the stomach for it, is, “Let The Right One In.”


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