Why ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ still packs a punch 40 years on

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 14 November 2022   By Matt d’Ancona and James Wilson

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

Forty years after its release – and to coincide with a Peter Greenaway season at the BFI – the auteur-director’s second feature film returns to perplex, beguile and transfix audiences. 
The year is 1694, and Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) is trying to hire the much-sought-after artist Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce 12 drawings of her husband’s rural estate. Neville plays hard to get and agrees to the commission only if, in addition to his fee, he is granted ‘the unrestricted freedom of her most intimate hospitality’ while her husband (Dave Hill) is away.
Sumptuously restored in 4K by the BFI National Archive, The Draughtsman’s Contract (selected cinemas) remains a movie of great fascination, beauty and menace. Neville is insufferably arrogant. But, as he begins his work, he is quickly unsettled by what appears to be a series of visual clues to – what? He is also drawn into a second sexual arrangement with the Herberts’ daughter, Mrs Taiman (Anne-Louise Lambert). 
Shifting colour codes add to the sense that Neville is now deep in a web of conspiracy and manipulation (as Greenaway wrote in 2003: ‘This film is not a thousand miles away from being an Agatha Christie story about a country-house murder’). In his second collaboration with the director, Michael Nyman contributes a soundtrack of sinuous majesty that compounds the atmosphere of courtly beauty laced with deep foreboding. The lighting, costumes and often grotesque make-up also conspire to create a brooding aesthetic that is part-Caravaggio, part-Gothic mystery.
The Draughtsman’s Contract was the breakthrough feature of a director who went on to make many terrific movies: among them A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), The Belly Of An Architect
(1987), Drowning By Numbers (1988), and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Four decades on, it has lost none of its power, ingenuity or capacity to shock.

Matt d’Ancona

Here are this week’s recommendations, brought to you by James Wilson.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


The English (BBC iPlayer)
Directed by Hugo Blick, master of the BBC miniseries (see The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising), this six-parter set in 1890s America boils down to a classic revenge story. Emily Blunt, who also produced the series, plays Cornelia Locke, an English noblewoman who’s made the voyage to America seeking retribution for the death of her son, and quickly teams up with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Native American and US army veteran on a mission to reclaim a plot of land. 
While the shootouts, dastardly villains and the rugged beauty of the American wilderness combine to make the show, at least partly, a love letter to the westerns of old, it doesn’t repeat their mistake of romanticising that old world, refusing to shy away from the brutality of the colonisers while they argue about their credentials as true Americans. Perfect to binge on a rainy November evening.


The Madness: A Memoir Of War, Fear And PTSD by Fergal Keane 
‘You have nothing to complain about. You have your legs and arms. You are alive…’ This is what Fergal Keane tells himself when he remembers his fellow war reporters killed or maimed by the conflicts they covered. Yet Keane bears his own scars inside his head. In The Madness, the BBC special correspondent details his experience of living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his attempts to figure out the cause of it.

Keane displayed the facial twitching that’s symptomatic of PTSD from childhood. Investigating the root of his condition, he recounts the bullying from his peers, the beatings from his teachers and his father’s alcoholism. He travels even further back, referencing the collective trauma suffered by his ancestors during the Irish famine passed down the generations; how his grandmother Hannah Purtill took up arms in the fight for Irish independence. The trauma is self-perpetuating: despite the near-constant anguish caused by his experiences on the battlefield – he’s worked in war zones including Rwanda, Sudan and Ukraine – he can’t keep away from it. An immensely brave book.


Alpha Zulu by Phoenix
An upbeat melancholy runs through Alpha Zulu, the seventh outing from the French indie outfit. Inspired by Philippe Zdar, the late producer of several of Phoenix’s albums, who died in 2019, guitarist Christian Mazzalai told Pitchfork magazine earlier this year that they ‘had many moments where we could feel his ideas. Jeté, that’s a word he would say, when you’re throwing something very fast.’ Alpha Zulu isn’t exactly fast, at least for the most part, but that’s just fine. An album displaying some of the band’s best characteristics without feeling old hat.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Remembering Mimi Parker 
Last Saturday Mimi Parker, the singer, drummer and founding member of the band Low, died aged 55 after an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2020. Her husband and Low frontman Alan Sparhawk tweeted from the band’s account: ‘Friends, it’s hard to put the universe into language and into a short message, but… She passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours. Keep her name close and sacred. Share this moment with someone who needs you. Love is indeed the most important thing.’

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t familiar with Low’s work before this week, when Tortoise executive editor Jasper Corbett nudged me in their direction following Parker’s death. Hailing from America’s frozen ceiling – Duluth, Minnesota – the band’s first two albums – I Could Live In Hope (1994) and Long Division (1995) serve as a good introduction to their moody, minimalist style. This is a good primer on their back catalogue.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona and James Wilson
Tortoise Media


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