The Draughtsman’s Contract Blu-ray Review: An Oddly Fascinating Murder Mystery

There’s always going to be a rift between the rich and the poor, where the poor sometimes gets a taste of wealth, and the rich calls them upon it. There have been many filmmakers that have put their own spin onto this theme, but only few have ever reached the level of grimness behind it that unique filmmaker Peter Greenaway has. With his first traditional feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract, Greenaway has concocted an oddly fascinating murder mystery into the mix.

It’s 1696, and Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young and narcissistic artist, is contracted by Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman), the wife of a boorish, neglectful husband, to sketch his property while he’s away on business. Part of the contract is that she is to provide Mr. Neville with a fee, room and board, food, and sexual favors, one for all twelve drawings that he is to complete before Mr. Herbert returns. Being the (impotent) deviant he turns out to be, he continues the contract even as Mrs. Herbert’s tries to make it void, due to reluctance, regret, and distress. He obviously becomes the object of scorn from everyone on the estate, especially son-in-law Mr. Tallmann (Hugh Fraser), the husband of her daughter Sarah Tallmann (the bewitching Anne-Marie Lambert of Picnic of Hanging Rock fame), who blackmails Mr. Neville with own her contract.

When Mr. Herbert is found dead in the moat near the estate, fingers are eventually pointed, and for one of the characters, it could mean doom for them, especially Mr. Neville, whose drawings themselves may have revealed the murder.

Despite all of the constant, albeit clever dialogue (it is a talky film), there is an attention to detail (which is quite lovingly exaggerated), photography, and resonant brutality (it is a film about the rich and the poor after all). There’s coldness in the actors’ delivery, which does make sense, and make their performances all the more fascinating and colorfully sordid. There’s also a sumptuous score by then relatively unknown composer Michael Nyman, which perfectly complements the entire production. In terms of the murder mystery, there is more than meets the eye. When the real culprit is more or less revealed, it is perhaps a little too late for a certain character.

When it comes to sexuality, the eroticism is there, but it is rather tasteful, compared to many of Greenaway’s later works. This film isn’t overly concerned with that; it is really about how manipulation and greed, as well as desire, can put humanity at dead last, and Greenaway definitely succeeded with his opulent direction, creating what is considered to be his masterpiece, and rightly so.

Special features of Kino’s new Blu-ray include commentary and introduction (both by Greenaway); four deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews; an interview with Nyman; four short films by Greenaway: Intervals (1969), Windows (1974), Dear Phone (1976), and Water Wrackets (1978); and the re-release trailer.

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