To find a fitting visual style with which to tell his tale of a lost empire devouring itself Greenaway reaches back to 17th century Baroque painting. Why? Because in a work like Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" the director sees more than a masterly use of light and shadow, more than a compelling composition or innovative applications of paint, he sees the moment at which those with access to the levers of power in the Netherlands used that access to build for themselves unparalleled personal wealth while most of their compatriots struggled to put a few potatoes on the table. He sees the development of personal mythology intended to dazzle the downtrodden. He sees a formula for success for anyone with connections who's paying attention. (Even the movie's title evokes those nondescript list-titles first hung around the necks of still life paintings of the Baroque period.)
|(left) Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" (right) Scene from "The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover"|
Unfettered by fad Greenaway has no use for the staccato editing techniques popularized by MTV. He holds some shots so long that they can almost be considered paintings in and of themselves. But he doesn't do this simply to show off the bravura art direction he does this to force a largely unwilling public to see what's going on. The editor has always been the savior of the squeamish, the censor the tool of the power hungry but here Greenaway keeps them both at arms length. He doesn't patronize your oh-so fragile and sensitive nature by cutting away when things get "objectionable" instead he focuses in: "Of course it's bloody objectionable, that's why you HAVE to look!"
And if they look carefully what they'll see is an allegorical tale in which the Thief, (standing in for the iron lady and played with brutal authority by future Harry Potter alum Michael Gambon), imposes himself upon a largely complacent public represented in its various aspects by the Cook (standing in for the civil service), his Wife (played with courage and conviction by Helen Mirren who represents the ebbing sense of civility in public discourse) and her Lover, who fairly obviously represents for the ineffective liberal opposition who did their best Neville Chamberlain impersonations while the barbarians made off with the treasury.
It is the story of an England shorn of empire where the former ruling class decide to live out their imperial fantasies by conquering, displacing and subjugating their own: "If we can't have India we'll take the Docklands!" Greenaway looks at this "New World Order" and sees it for what it is: the old world order called feudalism. But what's worse is that he sees it being imposed upon society with the tacit deference of a cuckold public. Because of this no one is spared in "The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover". While the Thief is kept squarely in the center of the frame throughout the would-be opposition is nonetheless there to be seen at the edges, like the sycophants in "The Night Watch", on some level aware that their unwillingness to stand up for themselves will result in their marginalization yet hidebound by inertia nonetheless.
The film's conclusion implies something most historians know in their bones: that tyranny contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction and that if you push the people far enough their patience will reach an end and you'll wind up with a French revolution where the Marie Antoinettes of the world get theirs at the hands of the mob. I don't think even Greenaway would promote such a result though. I believe his movie was intended to embolden dormant voices of opposition to speak out before things got to that point. It is a plea for civic resistance, for the opposition to push back before its too late.
History, (especially the events of the last few years), unfortunately demonstrate that his pleas went largely ignored.