The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not the first film you're likely to come up with when thinking about British gangster movies. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway, who began his artistic endeavors as a painter, has made a name for himself as a creator of provocative and sometimes experimental works of greater or lesser accessibility (The Draughtsman's Contract, Prospero's Books, The Tulse Lipper Suitcases), and no one would call him a genre filmmaker of any sort. And yet, in The Cook, the Thief, released in 1989, Greenaway wrote and directed a film that has a gangster, Albert Spica, as its central character. The film is not a conventional gangster picture, but it has at its core the ingredients that make up many a basic crime drama: violence, betrayal, romance, revenge. How these ingredients fit together is what makes the film unusual—a film no one but Greenaway, with his distinctive approach to visuals and narrative, could have made.
But let's start with the plot: somewhere in England, a gangster named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has bought Le Hollandais Restaurant, run by the French chef Richard (Richard Bohringer). Every night Spica turns up at the restaurant with his entourage of goons, and this boorish group proceed to offend the restaurant staff and customers. Spica himself is violent and crude, and he holds court from the center of his table. He's a self-proclaimed authority on everything, a person intolerant of dissent. Besides his thugs, he's accompanied each night by his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), a woman who somehow manages to conduct herself with class and tact while enduring the bellowing onslaughts of her husband. Right under his nose, she takes up with a man who always dines alone while reading a book (Alan Howard), and this affair continues with the help of the restaurant staff. Everyone knows the explosion that will happen if Albert discovers the affair, and sure enough when he does, the cruelty he enacts on his wife and her lover (and a child who helped them) is monumental. His wife's sense of loss is deep. Her lover was everything Albert is not: kind, quiet, thoughtful. Above all, like her, he enjoyed books. He lived for something other than power, money, and eating—the things Albert values. Emboldened by her grief, Georgina talks revenge, and she convinces the restaurant chef to help her. Richard, Georgina, and all the many people Albert has hurt band together. Restaurant staff are among the avengers; so are former members of Albert's crew. The vengeance they take out on him is horrific, as cruel as anything he did to others, but it's exactly what he deserves.
[It gets even crazier...]