Those who know Mirren best as the properly prim star of your grandmother’s favorite British dramas may be shocked to see some of her earlier films. That’s especially true of Peter Greenaway’s boundary-pushing “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover,” which has been stirring up controversy since its release in 1989.
An allegory for Thatcher-era Britain, it stars Mirren as Georgina, whose marriage to the violent criminal Albert (Michael Gambon) has left her emotionally repressed. Her spirit awakens when she meets the bookish Michael (Alan Howard), who frequents the same lavish restaurant as she and her husband, night after night. Soon the two are making passionate love throughout the restaurant, but their affair ends in tragedy when Albert sics his goons on Michael, force-feeding him a book on the French Revolution page by page. But Georgina gets her revenge with the help of chef Richard (Richard Bohringer), who prepares a nauseating surprise for Albert.
The film caused a stir for its explicit sex, brutal violence, and aberrant content, earning a dreaded X rating when it made its way to the US. Reactions to it depend largely on the strength of one’s stomach. Yet there’s no denying the power of the filmmaking or the performances — especially Mirren, who displays a bravery here that few actors would dare match.