Friday, February 27, 2015

Recommended!: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

For all of the innovations of the cinema of Peter Greenaway, he is not necessarily known as an actor's director. Though many famous and prolific actors have appeared in Greenaway's films (a list that includes Sir John Gielgud, Ewan MacGregor, Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes, Martin Freeman, and even Brian Dennehy), it is Greenaway's style, the playfulness of his writing, the classicism of his compositions, the breadth of his historical and cultural allusions, that concerns most of his critics.

But word came in this week (belatedly, as many things from outside the US come) that actor Alan Howard had died, and immediately his performance in Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover came to mind. It's a gruesome and intense movie, to be sure, as Greenaway lays bare the greed and anti-human impulses of the Margaret Thatcher regime in a Jacobean-level revenge parable. But there are many ways into the movie: a classically-orchestrated revenge drama; political satire; playful exegesis on food, eating, and consumption.

But there's a powerful love story at the movie's core as well, as Georgina (Helen Mirren), the wife of vicious and stupid gangster Albert (Michael Gambon), falls for Michael (Howard), a quiet, bookish patron of their favorite restaurant. Georgina and Michael begin a clandestine affair in the restaurant's bathroom, propelling the two of them into terrible danger as a keenly felt, genuine love grows between them, and Albert begins to suspect the affair. As outlandish as the movie is, Mirren and Howard keep this aspect of the movie grounded and believable. Mirren's desperation is palpable, and we understand why she'd accept the limited escape her affair with Michael would offer. And Howard's Michael is bookish and unassuming, but smart and resourceful enough to take on a heroic aspect; gauging just the right level of defiance to present against Albert's insults to rebuff him (knowing that too much would get him brutalized or killed). Georgina responds initially to his wit, and when she unleashes his passion we suspect it's lurked under the surface all his life. Grrenaway's story patiently reveals details about Michael; Howard fleshes these details out beautifully, but is more than present enough to register him as a full formed human being even in his initial, peripheral appearances.

Howard's performance is memorable enough to argue against the notion of Greenaway as a non-actor's director (and opens the door to consider other fine performances by actors under Greenaway's direction, as well). Looking over Howard's body of work one finds a number of other notable movies, but also a huge array of performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company. One imagines that any of his takes on Shakespeare's kings would have been something to see. The man was clearly a colossal talent, and it shows even in the role of the fourth-billed character in a film by an artist not best remembered for his work with actors. Fire up the ghost light, and hoist a glass for Alan Howard.

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