A film as lavish with its cinematography as it is with its depiction of faeces, violence and nudity, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover has lost none of its quiet shock value. The film is a stately depiction of the grotesque consequences of overwrought power, constant greed and forbidden lust.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover follows the evolving affair between a quiet bookshop owner, Michael, and a gangster’s wife, Georgina, who frequent a high-class restaurant that’s been captured by Michael Gambon’s superbly volatile mafia boss Albert. Michael and Georgina’s affair is doomed from the very beginning, but don’t take that as a spoiler folks. This is a film devoted to its own twisted, artificial nature.
The real star here isn’t Helen Mirren’s sultry yet innocent Georgina, it’s not Alan Howard’s gentle Michael, and it isn’t even Gambon’s larger-than-life embodiment of underworld excess – it’s the restaurant much of the film takes place in. Director Peter Greenaway invites us into this grand establishment, a home that encompasses villainous rogues feasting like pigs and a sensual affair that spirals from room to room, a labyrinth of hidden locations tucked away deep in the restaurant’s belly. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’s intoxication visuals belittle its limited location; but that location is omnipotent in its ability to convey this film’s strange, strangled take on dark humour.
By comparison the plot is a mundane matter, as Georgina and Michael’s affair is inevitably exposed, both Georgina and Albert realise that the only course of action is for heads to roll – that’s about it. However, as you may have guessed, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover finds substance in how its destructive romance is intertwined with the engrossing set pieces.
More than 25 years since its release, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover has lost little of its power. Its ability to shock is blended with a detached, unbothered sense of grace and elegance, as if the film is confident enough in its majestic atmosphere to deliver some animalistic savagery. With that grasp on its power remaining as strong as ever, it does of course mean that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is as much an acquired taste as it was all those years ago. However, it’s a taste that certainly lingers on the tongue for quite some time.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989) / CERT: / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: PETER GREENAWAY / STARRING: RICHARD BOHRINGER, MICHAEL GAMBON, HELEN MIRREN, TIM ROTH, ALAN HOWARD / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW