Subscriber article

Low Culture Podcast: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

This month we tuck in our napkins for an encounter with Peter Greenaway's captivating yet grim 1988 film starring Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren.

Luke Turner and John Doran went into the subject for this month’s Low Culture Podcast convinced it was a cult yet popular landmark of British cinema… yet it transpired that Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is nigh on impossible to stream in the usual places, and the only two references to it on tQ were in questions by John in interviews, specifically with Kate Bush and Richard Dawson. The Cook, The Thief… is shot as much as a theatrical play as it is a work of cinema, giving the narrative of Michael Gambon’s gangster Albert Spica’s gluttonous and tasteless pretentions and fascistic violence a claustrophobic intensity. It’s a film that is arguably in a strange meeting place of the British gangster flick (though think Performance, Sexy Beast and The Long Good Friday rather than Guy Ritchie), European art house cinema and even the English esotericism of Derek Jarman and Coil. We talk about artificiality in Greenaway’s filmmaking and its relationship to the theatricality of real-life gangsters like the Krays, and how Helen Mirren, who plays Spica’s wife Georgina, travelled to the USA to defend the film’s artistic merit to American censors, who wished to give it an R rating. She was right to do so, for this this is a disturbing film, but a beautifully made one, from the piles of food that sit like the still lives of the Dutch masters, to the framing of shots, the use of colour and symbolism, and Michael Nyman’s wonderful soundtrack. We ask if the sadism and violence means this is a difficult or enjoyable film to watch, and how it went against the political, realist tradition of British cinema of the time. One thing is for certain – few other works of art have quite so effectively and gruesomely explored the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Thanks as ever to our producer Alannah Chance and to all those who keep our show on the road with your generous subscriptions. To listen to the podcast you’ll need to be a Low Culture or Sound & Vision subscriber, signing up gives you access to this monthly broadcast plus a load more exclusive editorial, playlists, newsletters and, for the top tier, especially commissioned music. Sign up to be a tQ subscriber via the Steady checkout below or by visiting our page on the platform here.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today