This review was written fairly early in the run of The Reel Thing, the movie review radio show I co-hosted from 1990 to 1993. I worked as hard on this piece as anything I wrote in those first months of the show, because I knew I was out of step with the broader critical community. More than that, I knew my partner on the program absolutely loved this film, so I had to make my case as sharp and compelling as possible. As soon as I was done, there was going to be an on-air fight. It wasn’t going to be Siskel and Ebert duking it out over Full Metal Jacket, but it was going to be a scrap nonetheless.
When an artist creates something that is intended to be shocking and brutal, that artist will find themself walking a very fine line between what is striking honest and what is nothing more than shock for shock’s sake. With the film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, writer-director Peter Greenaway apparently took one look at that line and decided his place was on the far less appealing side, filled with grotesquely horrible people and a world that often has a quality equal to the maggot-covered meat that appears midway through the film.
The thief of the title is an unquestionably terrible human being who forces everyone around him, from his closest companions to complete strangers, to live with his repulsive mannerisms. Everyone who comes into contact with him is treated extraordinarily horribly, especially his wife, who seeks solace from his abuse in the arms of a quiet, highly intelligent bookkeeper, who is a patron in the restaurant owned by her husband. The two begin having an illicit affair in the back of the restaurant, which is covered up by the cook, who is sympathetic to the cruelty that is endured by the people in the restaurant.
Much of the film takes place in that giant restaurant and the locale is a cinematic marvel. Each room has its own distinct color: the bathroom is a pure, sterile white, the kitchen radiates with emerald green, and the large dining room is a deep, rich red. And in a solitary stroke of brilliance, Greenaway manipulates the costuming according to the rooms. The wife’s dress is the dining area is a dark red that matches the room around her, but as she enters the bathroom her dress becomes the same ghostly white as the walls she walks past. This chameleon-like costuming also applies to several other characters. It is a wildly unique concept that provides the film with one of its few visually redeeming merits.
Beyond that, and the fine performances by Michael Gambon as the thief and Helen Mirren as the wife, the film is left to twist in its own depravity. Too much of the picture is mired in vile brutality, which often seems to have no other purpose than to insult the audience and to do everything possible to make this film incredibly uncomfortable to watch. It’s not particularly surprising that several people who have gone to this picture over the course of its release have walked out rather than enduring it through until the end. If this is what Greenaway intended, then I suppose he must be given some credit for his unrelenting dedication to this unappealing goal. Aside from that, there is little to praise in this exercise in atrocities.
1 and 1/2 stars, out of 4.