Film review: The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982)

The Rule Britannia Blogathon is an event celebrating British cinema, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. This post is part of the 7th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon—an annual celebration of British film-making hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

(Note: this review contains numerous spoilers throughout)

The film starts without visuals—the voice of a counter-tenor singing in a style that places us firmly in the seventeenth century, and accompanied by a keyboard instrument of the period. But there’s nothing entertaining or relaxing here—the singing voice is strident, harsh, and every note feels like a knife.

As soon as the characters appear on screen, with their absurdly exaggerated powdered wigs and extravagant costume, that seventeenth-century feel is confirmed. It’s a clearly upper-class dinner party gathering in a country house, indulging in a series of scatological anecdotes about themselves and their neighbours—in one case the punch-line being ‘a watery death’.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) directed by Peter Greenaway • Reviews,  film + cast • Letterboxd

We’re swiftly introduced to the Herbert family. Mrs Herbert is unhappily married to her unappealing husband who, we hear, is shortly to leave their house and gardens of Anstey, their lavish home in Wiltshire, for a fortnight away in Southampton. (The filming location is actually Groombridge Place in Kent.) Mrs Herbert is therefore to be left at home with her married daughter Mrs Talmann, along with her distant and arrogant Dutch husband Mr Talmann and his young nephew Augustus.

The year is 1694, six years after the accession to the British throne of William and Mary, and the Protestantism of the Low Countries, of which Mr Talmann is emblematic, is in the ascendant. We later learn that the reason his young nephew is living with him is that his father was killed in battle, and he was an ‘orphan’ because his mother is a Catholic and therefore an unsuitable parent. Political and religious micro-tensions run through the film, with reference to ‘Scottish sympathies’ and William III’s battles in Ireland four years earlier.

During Mr Herbert’s absence, mother and daughter decide to commission one of the guests, the draughtsman Mr Neville, to produce twelve drawings of the house and gardens as a gift for Mr Herbert on his return. The contract for this work is drawn up by the family’s lawyer Mr Noyes, in the presence of Mr Neville and Mrs Herbert, and the surprising terms include not just the fee of £8 per drawing, but the condition that Mrs Herbert will ‘agree to met Mr Neville in private to comply with his requests concerning his pleasure’.

Drawing quickly gets under way, with the voice of the narrator stepping in to list each drawing and Mr Neville’s instructions regarding the hours of work, and the presence or absence of people, livestock, and inanimate objects. (The narratorial list is a favourite device of Peter Greenaway, and can be seen in some of his early short films.) Throughout the remainder of the film, views of the house and gardens will be seen though the frame on a stand which Mr Neville sets up in each location. But what—or who—is really being ‘framed’?

The Draughtsman's Contract – simplysourdust

Mr Neville’s drawings proceed, and we see them being drawn. Peter Greenaway started out as an artist, so the drawings are indeed his, as are the hands we see producing the sketches. The colour scheme of the film sets the black and white of the characters’ costumes and wigs against the bright green of the expansive gardens. The marvellous musical score by Michael Nyman, deconstructing themes by seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell, is perfect.

Mr Neville is in the ascendant, ordering members of the household about, and roughly and unkindly taking advantage of Mrs Herbert’s obligation to ‘comply with his requests concerning his pleasure’. We hear snippets of conversation, from which we learn that the impotent Mr Talmann expects his son (when and if he and his wife ever have one) to inherit Anstey. Mrs Herbert is for some reason eager to know which road her husband will return on from Southampton, and whether he had taken his French boots. Mr Neville has produced one drawing with Mr Talmann standing in the foreground, but without a face—the face of Mr Herbert will be superimposed when he returns, says Mr Neville, to which the cryptic response is ‘if he returns’.

To add to the growing sense that all is not what it seems, a naked man coloured to look like a statue is seen mysteriously creeping around the property—on the roof, in place of an obelisk, or pressed up against a wall. (The longer, four-hour, first cut of the film apparently makes it clearer what role this character plays). A ladder has been placed against one wall of the house where it has no place to be, and various items of clothing and linen have been disposed around the grounds.

Mrs Herbert is increasingly unhappy with the terms of her agreement with Mr Neville and tells him that the contract is void. Mr Neville makes the obvious response that just as it takes two people to make a contract, it takes two to undo it. While Mr Neville yet again takes his pleasure of Mrs Herbert, he asks her what will happen if there is no male heir to Anstey, to which she replies that she ‘do[es] not like to think of it’. The property was originally hers, and it’s 1694, the year of the Married Women’s Property Act which would entitle her or her daughter to Anstey in their own right, but, she tells Mr Neville, Mr Herbert does not support the idea of married women owning property.

The feeling of unease continues to spread. Mrs Herbert was, we learn, originally promised to the family lawyer, Mr Noyes, who might well have reason to wish Mr Herbert dead. There is some discussion about whether the body will be found that inhabited the clothes strewn around the grounds, or whether they will lead to a corpse. Is Mr Herbert in Southampton after all? And, Mrs Talmann tells Mr Neville, ‘perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust’.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

The pivotal conversation between Mrs Talmann and Mr Neville turns the story significantly at this point. In a mirror image of Mr Neville’s contract with Mrs Herbert, Mr Neville is now contracted to Mrs Talmann for the remaining six drawings, and to comply with her requests concerning her pleasure. He completes his task and leaves Anstey.

But Mr Herbert’s horse has been found riderless on the road to Southampton, and it’s not too long before a body is dredged from the water on the one side of the house Mr Neville had omitted from his schedule of drawings. Mr Noyes is concerned that he will be framed for the murder of Mr Herbert, and offers Mrs Herbert to trade the contracts—the evidence of her infidelity—for the drawings. Mr and Mrs Talmann have a heated argument in which she upbraids him for his impotence, and he retaliates with comments about her infidelity with Mr Neville.

Meanwhile Mr Neville has returned and offers to undertake a thirteenth drawing, of the south aspect of the house where the body was found in the water. While seated there in the dark of the evening, his drawing complete and about to eat a pineapple, he is approached and surrounded by Mr Talmann, Mr Noyes, and others, all masked, who beat him to the ground, burn out his eyes with their torches, club him to death, and tip him in the water. The killers departed, the naked statue appears, and takes a large bite out of the pineapple.

This is one of Greenaway’s finest films, a superb and artful twist on the English country house murder mystery with stunning visuals and musical score. The cutting of the footage to one and three quarter hours from its original four means that a number of loose ends aren’t tied up, which lends even more of a sense of intrigue.


  • Anthony Higgins as Mr Neville
  • Janet Suzman as Mrs Herbert
  • Anne-Louise Lambert as Mrs Talmann
  • Hugh Fraser as Mr Talmann
  • Neil Cunningham as Mr Noyes
  • Dave Hill as Mr Herbert
  • David Gant as Mr Seymour
  • David and Tony Meyer as The Poulencs
  • Suzan Crowley as Mrs Pierpont
  • Lynda la Plante as Mrs Clement
  • Michael Feast as The Statue

4 thoughts on “Film review: The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982)

  1. This films sounds uniquely fascinating and stylised. It is probably difficulty to get close to but just as difficult to forget. Someday I may be thanking you for the introduction.

  2. I have to confess I have yet o see The Draughtsman’s Contract. I sounds like an interesting film and I will definitely have to check it out! Thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon.

    • Lorna Dupre says:

      Really enjoyed the blogathon! And it was great to have an excuse to watch The Draughtsman’s Contract yet again.

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