Peter Greenaway brought to the screen this visually striking tale of revenge centered on its four characters and in its 124 minutes he pulls out all the stops to make sure he not only dances over the edge of the cliff, but jumps right over and shows us the belly of the beast.
At a symbolic level, this may very well be the "thinly veiled parable against Thatcherism" that many critics have pointed at, and it's not hard to see. Taking place at a restaurant in which Albert and Georgina Spica (expertly played by Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren) dine day in, day out, always accompanied by Spica's entourage of yes-men (among them a young Tim Roth), Albert indulges in the excesses of food and berates everyone around him, including his mutely suffering wife.
The first scene -- as a matter of fact -- establishes the entire mood of the film. Albert Spica is seen outrageously humiliating a naked man outside the restaurant as the overwhelming stench of decay and the presence of wild dogs linger on. Employees from the restaurant shortly come and hose the man from the excrement he has been slathered in. What it is saying is, we are entering a world of moral and spiritual decay in which Those In Power abuse their positions to the extreme, as the observers only stand by and go on with their business.
These bystanders are the people who work at the restaurant. Among them is the Cook, played by Richard Bohringer, who faithfully serves Spica and his yes-men meal after meal and makes no opinion as they loudly banter about the difference between this dish and that dish -- essentially saying nothing worthwhile --, while all the time Georgina silently eats on, almost like a non-entity. That is, until she notices a quiet, intellectual-looking man, reading a book. This man is Michael, the Lover, played by Alan Howard, a man who does not talk but oozes intelligence. And it's this element which attracts Georgina's eye... and then more.
It's clear where Peter Greenaway is going to take us, the viewer. The scenes involving the urgent, dangerous lovemaking between Michael and Georgina are unspeakably intense, even in later scenes when they meet in the kitchen among the ever-present cooks and are getting more comfortable with themselves. Greenway's Spica becomes so completely menacing his presence overflows the screen. He commits acts of intolerable cruelty against anyone who stands in his way -- he is the Terror during the French Revolution, the Dictator from every country who has had one who will torture those who give of even a slight resistance. And once Georgina's and Michael's clandestine affair is brought to light, needless to say, all hell breaks loose and Greenway sets the stage for his horrific, stomach-turning denouement.
In Georgina, Helen Mirren has created a character that is deeply suffering, infinitely patient... and that makes her the more dangerous. That she has to go through so much pain and humiliation to make a 180 degree turn to cold, ruthless avenger makes her the ultimate heroine. Her foil to Albert -- an essentially one-note role -- also serves his undoing. Alan Howard communicates so much as well in his almost silent role, and in a revelatory note, I'll say this: their nude scene is one that is rife in sensuality and proves that one doesn't need Hollywood hard-bodies to make an erotic scene work.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER is not a movie for all tastes -- pun intended. However, it's one of the most avant-garde, intelligent stories that demands to be seen numerous times. I admire the lavish scenery Greenaway created for each area of the restaurant because it gives this extremely modern film a Renaissance feel and elevates its inherent symbolism. Grotesque but beautiful at the same time, it has a powerful cinematic language that has a style all its own.