Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and her Lover, The (1989): Peter Greenaway Controversial Jacobean Drama, Starring Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren

There is no in-between: You are either going to admire or to despise The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and her Lover, British director Peter Greenway’s brutal Jacobean drama, based on the premise that ultimately we are what we eat!

Promoting the film in New York Greenaway described the impulses behind his work as “technical, aesthetic, cerebral and academic,” and the movie fits quite well each of these adjectives.

Thematically, depicting lust, adultery, jealousy and revenge, “The Cook” is a variation of film noir—only more brutal and in color.

The film, with its formalist structure, visual symmetry, recurring patterns and symbols, and numerous puns and conceits, is provocative and entertaining in a non-conventional way.

The Cook, Thief is built around the four characters of the title.  Narratively, it’s set in a huge restaurant, with each room representing its own historical era, the tradition of table painting, and a strategy that connects mouth with anus, food with feces, and sex with death.

The brilliant Michael Gambon plays the Thief, who is (deliberately and schematically) contrasted with Alan Howard’s Lover. In fact, they represent diametrically opposite men: The Thief is boorish, ignorant, and crass; the Lover is sensitive, sensual, gentle, and cultured

The great actress and sensual looking Helen Mirren plays the femme fatale of the triangle, Georgina Spica, the wife-adulteress.

Richard Borst, the cook (Richard Bohringer), serves as the director’s spokesperson, sort of a narrator or storyteller, who maintains a relatively neutral position.

Designed as provocation, Greenaway’s film tests the limits of what’s considered permissible and tolerable, and it’s therefore not shocking that the saga contains physical abuse, graphic torture, brutal rape, and cannibalism.

Semioticians have interpreted the film as an allegory that condemns contemporary consumerism, cynicism, greed, and vulgar taste.


Richard Borst, the cook (Richard Bohringer)

Albert Spica, the thief (Michael Gambon)

Georgina Spica, the wife (Helen Mirren)

Michael, the Lover (Alan Howard)

Mitchel (Tim Roth)

Cory (Ciaran Hinds)

Spangler (Gary Olsen)

Harris (Ewan Stewart)

Turpin (Robert Ashton Griffiths)

Mews (Ron Cook)


Screenplay and direction: Peter Greenaway

Producer: Kees Kasander

Photography: Sacha Vierny

Costume: Jean-Paul Gaultier

Production design: Ben Van Os, Jan Roelfs