England, 1694. Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman
) and her daughter Mrs Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert
) try to persuade Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins
), an artist, to make a series of drawings of Mr and Mrs Herbert's house and estate. Mr Neville finally agrees when Mrs Herbert offers, in addition to paying for each drawing and giving him room and board while he draws, to sleep with him. (Oddly, she makes this offer in the presence of her husband's agent, Mr Noyes (Neil Cunningham
), who is drawing up the contract.) Mrs Herbert intends the drawings to be a gift to her obnoxious and estranged husband, who dotes on his property and who is conveniently planning to be away from home while the drawings are created.
Mr Neville inconveniences the entire household with detailed and stringent requirements for his 12 drawings. For specified periods every day, the views he has chosen must be kept clear of carriages, animals, smoking chimneys, and people -- except for the one that requires Mr Talmann (Hugh Fraser
) to stand still and wear the same clothes for several days running.
The atmosphere of the film is chilly; there's little indication that any of the characters like one another, and many of them are fairly hostile. Starting over the issue of Mr Talmann's wardrobe, Mr Talmann and Mr Neville snipe at one another continuously. Mr and Mrs Talmann have a bitter confrontation. It's hard to tell what the exaggerated costumes are meant to contribute: comically tall headpieces for the women, and for the men, very long, curly wigs -- waist-length, in some cases -- which, along with full-skirted coats, make them look like Edwardian schoolgirls.
Mrs Herbert is distressed by the sexual part of her agreement and tries to break the contract; Mr Neville refuses. Mrs Talmann makes her own bargain for sexual favors with Mr Neville (which doesn't affect her mother's). Later, we learn that Mr Talmann is impotent -- and also that Mr Herbert doesn't believe that women should own property, so the inheritance of the estate depends on Mrs Talmann producing a son.
Mr Herbert's injured horse turns up, and shortly thereafter his body is found in the moat. Mr Noyes, the agent, who as a young man wanted to marry Mrs Herbert, comes to her demanding assistance because he believes he will be suspected of murdering Mr Herbert. Mrs Herbert shows no interest in helping him, so Mr Noyes blackmails her: if she doesn't give him the drawings (why does he want the drawings?), he'll make the draughtsman's contract public, exposing her as an adulteress.
Mrs Talmann observes that many of the drawings include objects that have no business being where they are: a ladder leading to Mrs Talmann's bedroom window; a pair of boots belonging to her husband; and several items of clothing belonging to Mr Herbert. Mrs Talmann implies that Mr Neville is planting clues related to the demise of Mr Herbert. But Mr Neville is clearly drawing what he sees, and we have no evidence that he's responsible for the presence of any of the misplaced objects.
An odd feature of the landscape is a moving statue (Michael Feast
), which turns up twined with vines against a wall, on the roof while Mrs Herbert and her guests are eating an outdoor meal in the foreground, and on a pedestal from which it first removes an obelisk.
Having completed his contract and gone away, Mr Neville comes back for a visit. Mrs Herbert offers him one more tryst in exchange for one more drawing, and he agrees. He completes a view of an equestrian statue in the garden, though he draws the horse without its rider. It's not apparent whether this is because he can't see the rider -- the moving statue may not be visible to everyone -- or because Mr Neville is alluding to the death of Mr Herbert.
Although his drawing is done, Mr Neville continues to sit by the statue. As it grows dark, he's surrounded by a group of masked gentlemen, most of whom are recognizable as members of the Herbert household or their friends. The gentlemen taunt Neville, put his eyes out with a torch, kill him, and throw his body in the moat. If their motivation is related to Mr Herbert's murder, they don't mention it. They burn all the drawings.