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Friday Film Review: The Draughtsman’s Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Genre: Drama/Period Piece
Grade: B

“There’s sex, snotty people and flamboyant costumes. What more could you want.” – Spanky and John Go to the Movies.

I’m almost hesitant to recommend this film just because I know a lot of people probably won’t like it. Note I’m not saying you won’t get it, just that you might not like it. I had read many of the reviews in which people who’ve seen the film praise it to the heavens – and also say that many viewers won’t get it – or conversely damn it as totally unwatchable. But with the film also getting heaps of praise for its costuming and music I decided to give it a go.

The plot is very complex so I’m just going to steal what they say at Netflix: “In 17th-century England, aristocratic Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions handsome draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce a dozen sketches of the family estate to surprise her absent husband. Neville accepts the project – in exchange for 12 sexual favors. The exceedingly smug Neville is in control till Mrs. Herbert’s daughter (Anne Louise Lambert) — who has her own agenda — outfoxes the arrogant artist.”

The film is gorgeous to watch. The costumes, which are exaggerations of the current fashions of that day, are fabulous. As one reviewer said as many ribbons and lace as money could buy and then some. Plus wigs which are fantastic in length as well as amazing in the slight horned shape that some of the men wear – and which is very apropos for one of the men in particular if you know what the phrase “made to wear horns” means.

The Jacobean house and gardens used in the production are beautiful and good use is made of all views and angles. Greenaway mentions that the antique tea set seen in one scene belongs to the owners of the house who kindly allowed them to be used and which were insured for more money than the entire budget of the film. The lighting, which is often just candles or lanterns, deserves praise as well as it helps set the mood for many shots.

Greenaway set many of the scenes up as tableaux with few cuts and changes of viewpoint in order to make them look more like staged plays of the age. And the wide angle often used means that the actors’ faces aren’t close up enough for us to gain a lot of insight into what their characters are thinking – thus requiring the watcher to pay close attention to the many meanings of what is being said. I also love the music which riffs on Purcell.

But it’s the layers within layers of the plot that makes you pay attention. I knew to be looking for the little items which appear in the views that Neville is drawing of the house and gardens. Items which on their own mean nothing but which put all together can make a case for murder. Because, yes you guessed it, this is actually a Glorious Revolution country house murder. Someone is dead, someone is going to get blamed for it and lots of people stand to gain from the death. Greenaway presents all the clues, shows who is responsible without coming right out and saying whodunnit and then has the culprits eliminate all those clues in order to wrap things up. And what had started out as a film showing Neville in control suddenly switches to reveal who has truly been in control all along and exactly what was needed from Neville.

But wait, there’s more. Maybe. Even though Greenaway doesn’t mention this in his commentary on the film, a few reviewers have mentioned that the characters can also stand in for the great political figures and tumultuous situations of the day: William of Orange, James II, Queen Mary, Princess Anne, Prince George of Denmark, George of Hanover and England herself. I must admit I had fun listening for these allusions. There are allegories and symbolism in regard to fruit and paintings. The film tackles issues about Protestants and Catholics, servants and masters, sex and power.

The pace is stately, the camera is fairly static, the dialogue – which the actors deliver with careful pronunciation – is period without being too archly stuffy, there is a moving statue – who is mainly naked and pees in one scene, there is no romantic love involved and one can’t mentally drift off or fast forward at the risk of missing something. In short, there are many reasons this film won’t appeal to a broad audience. But if you’re looking for something lovely to look at, beautiful to listen to and a puzzle which will keep you wondering and thinking – and rethinking – on what you’ve seen, this one is superb.


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Maili
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 04:46:32

    Yay! One of my favourite films! Great review, too. It’s a gross mockery of all things English. Quite malicious, really, but I love it.

    I was once challenged to choose the favourite from Barry Lyndon, The Draughtsman’s Contract and Caravaggio. I had a mini breakdown. :D I chose this one in the end, mostly because – while all those three have strengths and weaknesses (and flaws) – I happen to like English-style murder mysteries and this film’s po-faced sense of humour. Plus, it’s a little more interesting and entertaining than the other two. (Excuse the comparison, directors.)

    read many of the reviews in which people who’ve seen the film praise it to the heavens – and also say that many viewers won’t get it

    Bull. It’s not a matter of “getting it”. It’s a matter of interest. This film could appeal to people interested in period fashion, crime fiction, history, politics or stage plays (particularly Jacobean). Those who aren’t interested in any of those won’t find this film interesting. Those reviewers really do need a smack on head. Seriously, “won’t get it”? Good grief.

  2. Jayne
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 06:33:43


    Quite malicious, really, but I love it.

    Yes, it is isn’t it?

    I’ve never watched either Barry Lyndon or Caravaggio. Are they worth seeking out?

  3. Miranda Neville
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 06:44:46

    Thanks, Jayne. I haven’t seem this one in years but remember enjoying it – beautiful and complicated sums it up. I’m going to add it to my Netflix queue.

    @Maili Barry Lyndon is almost the ultimate period movie when it comes to the visuals. I saw it again recently and it does drag a bit. I just looked up Caravaggio. Do you mean the Derek Jarman film or the Italian one? I assume the former. Jarman is always interesting.

  4. Maili
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 09:03:13

    @Jayne: Oooh, difficult question. I think you may find Caravaggio both interesting and frustrating. It’s a romance novel gone wrong, and with no gender boundaries and conventional narrative. A bit like E.M. Forster/Megan Chance/Judith Ivory on an alcohol-influenced trip through an art gallery. The film doesn’t allow you to be involved with the story or root for its characters. If anything, it’d force you to be a spectator of someone’s life and career in a public arena where not all are sympathetic and nice. I’m not sure if you’d tolerate that.

    But the cinematography and the use of Caravaggio’s paintings within the film are wonderful. And Sean Bean – as a raw rough-and-ready bare-fist fighter as Caravaggio’s model who’ll become a destroyer – was pretty hot in this film, I admit. Tilda Swindon and Nigel Terry (as Caravaggio) were great, too.

    I have no idea whether you’d be interested in Barry Lyndon. I suspect you’ll probably say “Nice, but meh.” Do watch it for the sake of experience some day. :D

    @Miranda Neville: The Jarman film. Yes, Jarman is interesting. So interesting that I have a truly love/hate relationship with his films. Half the time I’m in awe and the other half, I want to punch it in the face. Especially with War Requiem (WWI / Wilfred Owen), Sebastiane (the fall and martyrdom of Sebastian as a gay Roman soldier), In the Shadow of the Sun (Jungian) and Edward II (based on Marlowe’s play).

    Oh, I agree. I’d go as far as to say it’s too long and somewhat bloated, but I think it’s been said that Kubrick made it so to reflect the pace and feel of its time setting, but with 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind, I’m sceptical.

    Also, like with Jarman, I have a love/hate relationship with Kubrick’s approach and I think this extends to his films like Barry Lyndon. Heh! Come to think of it, I feel the same about Peter Greenaway’s films. Hm. Interesting.

  5. Isobel Carr
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 09:03:42

    I love The Draughtsman’s Contract (Candice Hern made me watch it years ago and I was hooked), but Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most boring film every made. It’s beautiful, a joy for any fan of the period (visually), but I swear I can feel the cells in my body dying and being replaced when I watch it.

  6. SAO
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 09:08:00

    I thought the visual were great, but the actions of the characters often bizarre. For example, why did the artist think pictures of scenery littered with stray undergarments would be acceptable? Why did the lady think it was okay?

    Maybe I just didn’t get it, but I felt like the characters’ motivations had more to do with the director’s sly games with the viewers than how any real people would act.

  7. reader
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 10:58:33

    This sounds like an interesting movie. I’d never heard of it till now.

    Barry Lyndon is interesting, too, merely because the main character is so thoroughly unlikeable that you really enjoy watching his life fall all apart.

    It’s beautiful to look at as a period piece, but there’s not a single character to like nor a serious scene that doesn’t make you snort, groan, or laugh. One scene in particular, that in any other movie I would have been in tears over, made me simply roll my eyes at how poorly and unaffectingly it was done.

    There are also numerous scenes in this overlong movie that you wonder what the hell was the point of them in the overall plot.

    I will give Barry Lyndon credit for at least one scene, though, that was quite interesting and intense and done with a nice twist. I don’t know if it was historically accurate, but it was quite satisfying.

    And Ryan O’Neal’s acting is, like Kevin Costner’s, deadly earnest but entirely unconvincing, no matter the emotion he’s attempting to convey. That didn’t help things along, but did offer many more inadvertent laughs.

  8. Sunita
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 11:34:08

    Thanks, Jayne! I saw this in the theater when it came out. It was my first Greenaway and I’d been warned, but nevertheless I was in a state of confusion most of the time. I watched it a couple more times and appreciated it, but it has a distancing quality for me.

    I saw Barry Lyndon in the theater too. I loved that movie despite having Ryan O’Neal is in it (after that casting, was Tom Cruise really a surprise?). I’ve seen it a few more times since then and I readily concede the flaws, but I’m still so very glad Kubrick made it.

    With Kubrick and Greenaway (and Ken Russell too) the filmmaker is never absent. But while that kills the immersive, emotional element for me, it feeds my brain.

    And the music! It’s criminal that the soundtrack isn’t more readily available. I still have the vinyl version, luckily.

  9. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 12:41:42

    Oh yes, one of my favorite films! There are so many layers to it, you can watch it over and over. And if you don’t get it, or don’t want to try, it’s stunning to look at. it’s like an old painting by someone like Poussin, where there are lots of hidden meanings, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s lovely to look at.
    “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is a great Greenaway film, too.

  10. Wahoo Suze
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 16:56:32

    I saw this on tv years ago, and watched the whole thing, stupidly assuming everything would wind up with a satisfying (HEA-ish) ending. It did not. I was a little frustrated by the whole movie, mostly because I found the people bafflingly unappealing.

    Oddly, though, I was thinking about it while falling asleep a few nights ago, for no reason that I can think of.

  11. etv13
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 19:10:02

    I found a lot of it sort of off-putting, but it was all worth it for the fantastic speech about the pomegranate.

  12. Susan/DC
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 20:52:32

    I definitely recommend Jarman’s Caravaggio for any number of reasons. It’s confusing, vague, and over the top, but it’s unforgettable, one artist’s gift to another. You’ll replay scenes from the film for a long time after you see it, and you’ll look at Caravaggio’s paintings in a new way. And if Ryan O’Neal is miscast, Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean are perfect.

  13. Marguerite Kaye
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 07:06:16

    I’ve watched this film so many times (I have it on video, that’s how many!) and every time I watch it I change my mind about it. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I think I really will never get it, sometimes I’m just enthralled by its sumptuousness and sometimes I am fascinated by the politics and intrigue. As everyone here has said, there are an incredible amount of layers. I included it as part of my filmography in my masters, looking at it purely from the perspective of the use of landscape and Thatcherism, which is one of the layers not mentioned here. There are serious but extremely delicate and vicious anti-Thatcherist views in quite a few of Greenaways’s films of that period IMO – The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover mentioned above is another.

    I love the film, but I do understand why a lot of people don’t and why it’s not exactly going to top any popularity poll. It is so deep that it’s almost impenetrable in places, and because it’s so multi-layered I think it’s impossible to say what it’s really about – and some people just don’t like that.

    Barry Lyndon now – I thought it was seriously miscast and way too long, but in places hysterically funny. When I first saw it I was astonished that Kubrick had chosen to make it, but it suits his wicked side. I think there are quite a few of these picaresque novels ripe and ready for a good dark and poliitical recession-inspired remake – Tom Jones, Clarissa (the BBC adaptation of this was almost as interminable as the book), even Pamela.

  14. Jayne
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 07:13:08

    @Marguerite Kaye: Have you watched the newest DVD with Greenaway’s commentary? I think that helped me on this first viewing to get a touch of a grip on what was/is going on.

    I’ve seen both versions of Tom Jones and liked them. I’ve watched parts of the (Sean Bean) Clarissa – love the costumes! Is there a Pamela? Has anyone ever watched “Joseph Andrews?”

  15. Marguerite Kaye
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 11:09:12

    @Jayne: Jayne, I haven’t seen the version with Greenaway’s commentary, that sounds like a good idea. I originally saw it in an arthouse theatre and since then just the video or tv – I have to say, I was surprised and pleased to see it here.

    Sean Bean was the best thing about Clarissa I thought (I definitely wouldn’t have resisted him), but I’m not sure that Tom Jones has word very well, even though I like Tony Richardson’s films – and I haven’t seen the more recent version. As for Joseph Andrews, I didn’t even know if that had been made but I’d like to see it.

  16. Jayne
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 19:40:54

    @Marguerite Kaye: Joseph Andrews is another Richardson film from 1977. I’ve seen bits and pieces on cable TV but never the whole shebang.

  17. Marguerite Kaye
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 04:27:19

    @Jayne: Thanks Janye. Richardson is always worth checking out, so I will!!!

  18. AMG
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 19:41:03

    Such a gorgeous movie. Nice thoughts on the political figure allegory. May have to re-watch.
    I loved Barry Lyndon, but I’m a Kubrick fan. But I will acknowledge it is slow.
    If you like period, with humour, watch A Cock and Bull Story, which is about a film of Tristram Shandy. Hilarious.

  19. Jayne
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 06:56:52

    @AMG: I loved A Cock and Bull Story. Shirley Henderson is great and the opening bit between Brydon and Coogan is hilarious.

  20. Alison Stuart
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 17:00:49

    I last watched this film on the night before my wedding in 1984! (boy, does that age me!). It ensured I got hardly any sleep that night.

    The seventeenth century is “my” period of history and I just loved this film. Thank you for the fabulous review and the reminder that I really must watch it again.

    Alison Stuart
    (if you are interested in the seventeenth century visit – a group of seventeenth century passionistas who blog on all things 17th century)

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