Intellectualism in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover

In a review of Peter Greenaway’s controversial The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, film critic Roger Ebert said that the character of Michael, the titular “Lover,” represents “ineffectual opposition by leftists and intellectuals” (Ebert). With this perspective in mind, we can view the film not only as a critique of authoritarian, tyrannical leadership, but also as a critique of the role of political intellectuals in modern society. Michael has an understanding of the problems of Albert’s reign of terror, but his intellectual efforts initially do not lead to any real social change.

During the first several scenes of the movie, Michael does not say a word. After his love affair with Georgina begins, he mentions a film in which a character did not speak for a half hour. The very fact that Michael is referencing this personality trait is meant to alert us to his long period of silence at the beginning of the film. Michael’s silence is crucial in our understanding of his role in the chaotic environment of the restaurant, which is a microcosm of Thatcher-led England in the 1980s. Silence, it would seem, in spite of Michael’s noble character, results in complicity. Greenaway is condemning the learned members of British society that do not speak up when tyranny is afoot. Speaking out against a brutal tyrant like Albert, of course, would certainly result in violence, which explains Michael’s reluctance to start any meaningful resistance. Greenaway is showing, then, that there is no easy solution when faced with the threat of violence. While Michael’s silence is harmful to the society of the restaurant, it is also understandable and it comes from an interest of personal safety.

One of the most telling scenes relating to intellectualism in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover is the scene surrounding Michael’s death, when Georgina sees that Albert’s goons have stuffed pages of intellectual books down his throat. This occurrence signifies to us the fact that Michael has finally become part of a rebellion that must be quelled. This rebellion, of course, comes at a terrible price. What is confusing is the fact that Michael’s gruesome death involves the pages of the books that have helped him shape his anti-tyranny worldview. Is Greenaway condemning Michael for his intellectual pursuits even after Michael has become part of a rebellion? Greenaway may be condemning Michael’s pre-revolution intellectual pursuits, rather than condemning the character of Michael as a whole. Too much “digestion” of political thought, while helpful for people who do not understand their era’s political problems, becomes an act of preaching to the converted that does not help intellectuals and only keeps learned individuals in their ivory tower. Michael does redeem himself by committing acts of revolution with Georgina, however, and his death is more of a symbolic act on the part of Greenaway to show the lack of effectiveness among ivory tower intellectuals who choose not bring about any social change.

Political scientist Gene Sharp says that dictatorships are “often seen as firmly entrenched and impregnable,” and it is this kind of fatalistic thinking that has caused Michael to retreat within the comfort of his books (Sharp 1). Peter Greenaway uses The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover to show the two faces of political intellectualism, namely the practically useless ivory tower intellectualism and the socially involved revolutionary intellectualism. Michael’s transition from one facet of intellectualism to the other is Greenaway’s way of illustrating the necessity for active intellectuals in a politically dangerous society.


Works Cited


Ebert, Roger. “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover Movie Review.” Roger Ebert, 1 January 1999. Accessed 5 July, 2017.


Greenaway, Peter. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover. Palace Pictures, 1989. Film.


Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.


(Image courtesy of