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Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The (1989)
Genre: Crime Drama
Starring: Helen Mirren (The Queen • 2010), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter • "The Singing Detective")
Directed By: Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book • Drowning by Numbers)
Overview: A Cook owns a French restaurant with a horribly abusive mafia extortionist Thief. The Thief’s Wife finds escape when she takes on a regular restaurant patron as her Lover, risking it all for a few tender moments shared in the restaurant’s dark corners.
Not being one for Valentine's Day celebrations, I asked the new girl who had agreed that forced Valentine’s celebrating was über-lame-o, if she wanted to watch something 'On the list'. "Snow White And the Seven Dwarves?" I asked. “How about The Cook, The Thief, his Wife & Her Lover?" she retorted. I laughed, reminding her that this was about as non-romantic a film you could find, even by Anti-Valentine's standards. The fact that we watched this twisted love tale on February 14th was probably about as awesome as this "special" day will ever get.
We open with the Thief, Albert Spica, played perfectly over-the-top by Michael Gambon, intimidating, extorting, humiliating and bespoiling a poor victim of his vicinity, another restaurant owner. While the Thief's goons smear feces all over the poor victim, he introduces his Wife, the elegant and attractive Georgina Spica, played by Helen Mirren. Once his point is made, the Cook and his staff hose off the dejected individual, while the Thief and his Wife go off to their fancy French restaurant’s dining room to eat with Albert's entourage, a band of goons and ill-refined thugs that vomit in their own laps at the table, while Albert constantly chides and educates them in table manners. Albert is himself oafish, never sharing a tender moment, and when struck with whimsy will debase anyone who stands in his way, whether to horrify patrons to make room for a floor show or to criticize someone for reading while they dine, his Wife being by far the worst victim of his abuse. For her part, Wife Georgina cannot help but take her joy where she can, finding a furtive between-courses romance with a lone, drab regular diner. The suspense of the trip to the ending credits is rife with Thriller-grade tension.
The entire story is immersed in darkness and surrounded by darkness, and will be, to most audiences, ironically unpalatable for a film whose major theme is fine dining. Fortunately, this critic takes some joy in the epic suffering of others and found this fourth viewing allowed me to appreciate other aspects of the film, such as set and costume design. Jean Paul Gaultier, famous for designing Madonna's cone bustier, is credited for the clothing in The Cook, The Thief, his Wife & Her Lover. His dresses are almost as impressive as Helen Mirren's naked body. The sets are also grand, with most scenes sporting 30 foot high ceilings and a colour palate that is obviously a constant reminder of Greenaway's attention to symbolism – the kitchen is ever nature’s green, the dining room is crimson as deepest sin, the bathrooms an immaculately pure white. The film is quite beautiful to look at once you ignore the horrors being committed. Praise is also deserved to the writing, especially the histrionically intense, caricatured archetype dialogue of The Thief, Albert Spica. Add a part played by Tim Roth early in his career and an extremely dramatic ending, and The Cook, The Thief, his Wife & Her Lover might just be a film worthy of experiencing, hard to watch as it may be.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 84% (You Might Feel Robbed, But You May Just Love It)
Though his The Pillow Book is more palatable, more romantic, and quite artsy, director Peter Greenaway is probably best known for The Cook, The Thief, his Wife & Her Lover. Perhaps saying that he's more infamous would be a better way of putting it. When this originally hit the 1001 Club list, I wasn’t surprised to see so many reviews that curled their upper lips in revulsion, but in my experience, those I’ve met who’ve seen it liked it. I count myself in that dark brood and I’m not ashamed to say it.