The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
Most of us know British actor Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore in the last six Harry Potter films. Many of us know Gambon has enjoyed a long and storied stage career, particularly in Great Britain. But what if I told you Gambon played a villain so evil comparisons to Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” were appropriate? He did. The film was Peter Greenaway’s little-seen but now cult classic “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” — a 1989 foray into the macabre, rife with startling blood-red sets shot by French cinematographer Sacha Vierny and a controversial Greenaway screenplay that seemed to intentionally shock.
Gambon plays English gangster Albert Spica, a creature so crude and overbearing he forces a victim to eat his own defecant — and that’s just past the opening credits! Spica is the type who makes Jim Croce’s Leroy Brown character seem soft by comparison. Nightly, he struts and preens his way into his favorite eatery, Le Hollandais, during which time he and his band of thugs proceed to belch and blurt their way through antagonizingly long repasts, upsetting other diners and staff to no end. Spica loses business for his favorite French chef Richard (Richard Bohringer), but is never asked to leave, as he spends thousands each week.
Spica’s long-suffering high-class wife, Georgina, is played with British aplomb by a young Hellen Mirren. Embarrassed by her husband’s nightly upper-crust food raids, Georgina finds solace in a young patron named Michael, a bookstore owner played by Shakespearian actor Alan Howard. When Spica learns of his wife’s dalliance, his lust for revenge forces Georgina to hole up in the bookshop to escape the wrath of her husband and his men.
Suffice to say that if this set-up sounds like something off David Lynch’s cutting room floor, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Georgina’s retribution against Spica is so perfectly cunning, it at least matches his boisterous Machiavellian deeds which lead to the satisfying finale. While “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” was originally released unrated (in the days prior to the NC17 rating, women tend to love this picture more than men, due to the revenge factor. Even though Mirren had appeared in previous films, this one effectively established her as a major player in British cinema.
I especially like how the screenplay rarely takes us out of the restaurant setting. We know Spica and his men are gangsters from the dialogue; we don’t need to see them carry out unrelated crimes to prove the point. And the interior set designs are so memorable, we don’t even realize the sense of claustrophobia developing with each of Spica’s evening visits. It’s this subconscious restlessness (caused by Spica’s grandiloquence and by scenes intentionally allowed to go on too long) that slowly drives our hatred of Gambon’s character like a screw slowly boring through a block of wood — as if we didn’t despise Spica enough from the opening scene.
Admittedly not for everyone’s taste, this harsh, daring picture is somewhat the “Clockwork Orange” of the ’80s. It’s classy, colorful and very British, yet extremely difficult to watch. If you can make it through the first half-hour, you’re in for a real treat. Originally clocking in at just more than two hours, there was a 95-minute R-rated version circulated at video stores during the ’90’s and early 21st century. Stay away from this rendition. It’s not that I want to see how much sexual gore you can stand, but the short version cuts too many important plot points.
For those who have seen “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” Gambon’s Spica character remains one of the most unforgettable villains to ever grace the screen. Unfortunately, Greenaway’s career never really took off after “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” and that’s a shame because this work is one of the most original visions I’ve ever seen. It was one of my favorite films of 1989, and remains as startling today as it was almost 30 years ago. And that’s why it’s this month’s Buried Treasure.
Andy Ray’s reviews of current films appear on http://www.artschannelindy.com/