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Sunday, September 1, 2013

AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD (1983) / A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION (1991)

Tart & sophisticated, Alan Bennett’s chamber-sized studies of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, two of the four infamous Cambridge Boys, in their post-spying days, are supremely civilized entertainments . . . as far as they go. Perfectly suited to the tv movie format, they’re all but flawlessly realized by John Schlesinger. The earlier film (ABROAD) shows up on DVD in regrettably poor physical condition, but that needn’t stop anyone from watching Alan Bates as a down-at-the-heels Guy Burgess, living a drab exile’s life in Russia and glomming onto a bit British glamor (and treats) when actress Coral Browne shows up on tour in HAMLET. The slightly bizarre story, which Bennett got direct from the actress, is no more than an afternoon’s regret, and a look at Moscow at its dowdiest, but too bewitchingly odd and charming to miss. ATTRIBUTION, possibly due to being in better shape, now looks more interesting. A sly bit of intuitive fiction about Blunt’s last days as art expert to the Queen, it climaxes in a delicious coup de theater when Elizabeth herself (in a wicked perf from Prunella Scales) unexpectedly appears just as Sir Anthony (James Fox with alarming hair) is about to take down a suspect Titian painting. Plain-spoken & no intellectual, but sharp as a tack, the Queen is unconvinced by Blunt’s hairsplitting on fakes, forgeries & misattributions. But is she thinking of art . . . or him? Bennett showboats her entrance in a winning break from his well-manicured style, the touch of showmanship a relief amongst the rich, titled & tenured. If only Bennett had taken a stab at the WHY factor. The plays, good as they are, remain appetizers in search of an entrée. (No question of attribution  here, the above National Portrait Gallery commission is by Tom Wood.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The BBC mini-series, CAMBRIDGE SPIES/’03, fills in lots of details on Philby, Burgess, Blunt & Maclean.

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