At this stage of his career, Greenaway's skill as an extinguisher of acting talent had yet to manifest itself. Anthony Higgins's exasperated reaction to a film of which he had supposed himself the star is well-known, but the director's world was still one where wigs and their wearers, strict compositions and nuanced performances could peacefully co- exist. The human furniture of the fable still had some attention lavished on it. There was no real sign of the Greenaway who could squash Bernard Hill flat on the screen (Drowning By Numbers), or draw from Chloe Webb, who had just given one of the best performances of the decade, in Sid and Nancy, one of the worst (Belly of an Architect).
Hitchcock notoriously compared actors to cattle, but at least he wanted living, breathing cattle, while later Greenaway seemed to prefer holograms. Even Gielgud's performance in Prospero's Books was less a contribution to the film than the pretext for it. Yet, watching The Draughtsman's Contract, you could almost feel that Greenaway valued what his performers were doing. When Mr and Mrs Talmann (Hugh Fraser and Anne Louise Lambert) have a bitter marital squabble, it comes across as a bitter marital squabble. There are no allusions to art history, compulsive allegories or counting games for minutes on end.
The cast of The Draughtsman's Contract had two great advantages over their successors. First, they were in period costume - and if there is one thing that we in this country do better than anyone in the world, it's walking around with a wig block or a monogrammed chamberpot as if we'd done it every day of our lives. The actors used their costume- drama instincts to produce the right impression of mannered ease. The way Anthony Higgins throws his hat aside and flicks apart his coat-skirts while sitting down reminds us that we're not in the present, without being preciously alien.
There is just enough social texture in the script to justify this approach. When Mr Neville (Higgins) calls out to his servant not to trot, it is because, whatever else he is doing, he is trying to make an impression. When Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) kisses a child goodnight, it is his hand she kisses, since childhood has not yet been fully invented. When she burns her hand on the heating block beneath the teapot, she flinches but suppressses the reaction, since, whatever else is in her mind, she is also a hostess, with a hostess's obligation.
Greenaway's cabalistic obsessions were there in the script, but not yet dominant. They were like the tics of a sufferer from Tourette's Syndrome not yet diagnosed, and still socially functional. The actors are likely to have noticed the script's insistent listing of fruit (apples, pears and oranges have been mentioned even before the credits are over), but inventories had not yet supplanted human narrative as ways of structuring a film.
For someone who will be remembered for his images, Greenaway is an unrelentingly verbal director. But, in The Draughtsman's Contract, Greenaway's wordiness masquerades successfully as period speech, and the tendency of all his speakers to sound the same does no damage. The best moments, in a script lauded with wit and artificially brilliant observation, are actually those when rhetoric implodes: when Mr Talmann is so elaborately insulted that he can only say, 'What?', or when Neville, finally realising that he has overplayed his hand, says merely, 'Ah.' What? Ah. If only Peter Greenaway had remembered how to write speeches like that.
It may be that Greenaway wanted to stylise the grounds of the Herberts' house, as much as Resnais stylised the grounds of the hotel in Marienbad. If so, a tight shooting schedule and English weather conspired to thwart him, and nature is still a presence in the film. In one scene there is a mist of voluptuous thickness, though the sun is high in the sky and, in one outdoor conversation in particular, the level of light fluctuates wildly. The sun refuses to be enlisted as a source of mannered light.
The Draughtsman's Contract has an undeserved reputation as an incomprehensible film, when it is really only an insoluble puzzle. In any case, the first half of the film is lucid enough, because the audience is likely to see things from the point of view of the outsider, the draughtsman, to whom the world he is dealing with is necessarily mysterious. The screenplay only takes a perverse turn when Neville's contract is over and he leaves the house. He has another commission elsewhere, but the film doesn't follow him. The audience has to relinquish its tentative identification with him, without being any more in the know than before. When Neville reappears, he is already chastened and vulnerable, as if knowing that the centre of gravity of the film has moved ominously away from him.
The curious construction of the story could almost be an allegory of Greenaway's artistic development. He casts himself first as the artistic outsider, trying to break into the circles of power with only flair and charm to help him. But his high estimate of himself won't allow Greenaway to dramatise his situation this way for long. Soon he sides with the powerful rather than the conspired-against, with an elite against a parvenu. Before our eyes he metamorphoses from apprentice, hungry for appreciation, to mandarin, disdainful of it (the Greenaway we know). The Draughtsman's Contact is Peter Greenaway's masterpiece, because he was still learning while he made it, and, when he had nothing more to learn about the process, his product lost a dimension.