Peter Greenaway may be the last indisputably distinctive Anglophone filmmaker. With "The Draughtsman's Contract," he broke through from relative obscurity as an experimental artist into feature-length narratives. While his subsequent films have been more conservative than his earlier work, he remains a highly original and innovative artist. "Contract" may be his most balanced film, integrating much of his earlier formal experimentation with the demands of narrative.
Greenaway is just about the only well-known filmmaker with an interest in the art and film theory of the past thirty-five years. His is a "meta-cinema," at least as much about the act of making and watching movies as about particular situations. Summarizing the story of "The Draughtsman's Contract," for example, gives only a limited sense of what watching the movie is like. As some of the reviews here have pointed out, you cannot watch "Contract" without noticing the perspective tools used by Mr. Neville. These technologies anticipate the optics used in photography and cinematography. As we are aware of how they contribute to 17th century draftsmanship we (in theory at least) recognize the construction of the very images we are viewing. In short, through these and other techniques, you are too aware of experiencing the film to become engrossed in it.
If you are not comfortable with such distancing, "The Draughtsman's Contract" may not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, there is certainly "much to be applauded" in "The Draughtsman's Contract." As in virtually all of Greenaway's work, the visual design and cinematography are exquisite and all the more remarkable given the film was shot in 16mm. The actors obviously relish the chance to make the film's baroque dialogue compelling, lively, believable as everyday speech. (Incidentally, fans of the British "Poirot" series should get a chuckle out of Hugh Fraser's snide, arch, thoroughly unpleasant Mr. Talmann. It's almost impossible to believe that under the wigs and layers of linen and between the pauses in a viscous German accent is Poirot's amiable poodle, Captain Hastings.) "Contract" was also as much a breakthrough for Greenaway's favorite composer, Michael Nyman, as it was for the director. The score's Purcellian themes and arrangements are a little a-typical for the composer, however.
If you are familiar with the film or Greenaway's other work, you should be aware that the transfer is adequate without being stunning. While matted for widescreen, the disc is not 16:9 enhanced, which is a pity. Blown up to fill a widescreen TV, the grain gets a bit noticeable. I recommend viewing the disc in matted 4:3 mode. If you have never seen a Greenaway film, "The Draughtsman's Contract" makes an excellent introduction to the intricacies and paradoxes of his thematically and sensually rich cinema.