Georgina Spica embarks on a pantry-enclosed affair with the chef of her favourite restaurant, shunning her bulldog of a husband. He, the Thief of the title (Gambon), meanwhile, endugles in some of the most brutal acts of peacetime torture committed to film in the last decade, a Thatcherite, consumerist decade that the director feels is to blame.
It comes as no surprise to learn that it took director Peter Greenaway a very long time to find a film company that would consider his script for more than 30 seconds, since the film opens with a close-up of dogs gorging on hunks of bloody carcass and then pans to the Thief (Gambon) force-feeding dogshit to a naked man. The cold artiness of Greenaway’s previous films (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Belly Of An Architect) is thoroughly subordinated here.
Shot entirely on Elstree’s stage six, the story unfolds during line evenings at an exclusive French restaurant where the Thief hangs out with his scummy gang of cut-throats, regaling them with his obscene vanities and diabolic table manners, and casually brutalising his long-suffering Wife (Mirren).
The Wife meanwhile is intrigued by a quiet, fastidious diner (Howard) and embarks on a series of fatal sexual liaisons with him, starting in the ladies’ lavatory and progressing through the restaurant’s various well-stocked pantries. The Cook (Bohringer) assists the couple and ignores the Thief’s escalating violence. Eventually, the Thief tumbles and carries out a hideous revenge.
From the astonishing studio sets and (Gaultier-designed) costumes to Gambon’s performance (so ferociously wicked that it beggars description), Greenaway attacks his targets with a sadistic obsession that is, frankly, terrifying. Many people will be profoundly offended by this film — by the monstrous misanthropy that Greenaway lays bare through it, by the spiteful images of women in a vicious world — but some may appreciate it for what it certainly is: the most startling depiction of intellectual cruelty and evil for many years.
Unlike many a prospective moviegoer, Greenaway refuses to flinch at the deliberately - and, admittedly, captivatingly portrayed - excessive matter on show.