SAN FRANCISCO–A perfectly dry, brittle biscuit of Anglo wit, “A Question of Attribution” reunites writer Alan Bennett and director John Schlesinger in a sequel of sorts to their Atlantic-crossover BBC hit “An Englishman Abroad.”
While the short running time and visible (though expertly employed) TV roots will limit Stateside theatrical action, speciality gigs and a long life as a public-television fave seem certain.
In “Englishman” Bennett adapted his own stage play about the notorious Brit aristocrat Guy Burgess, who was eventually found out as a Soviet spy. Here the focus goes to Burgess’ partner in espionage, Sir Anthony Blunt (James Fox), on the eve of his own public embarrassment.
Arch and arrogant in Fox’s razor-sharp characterization, Blunt has hidden behind his legacy of privilege–he’s “Surveyor of Pictures” to the Queen, a sort of royal art historian–for years. But when new government interrogator Chubb (David Calder) is assigned to the case, the cat-and-mouse game between the two begins to crumble Blunt’s facade.
Despite his gruff working-class exterior, Chubb is a sly one, and his prey begins to feel the heat of inevitable exposure. (Blunt confessed in 1964–when this scenario takes place–and was publically named by Thatcher in 1979.)
The highlight is an extended episode in which Blunt finds himself thrown into a surprise conversation with the Queen herself while replacing a painting at the palace.
In the first-ever Brit TV fictive sketch of Elizabeth II, actress Prunella Scales takes pic into a sphere of delicious drollery.
Bizarre, funny yet respectful, her portrait shows the Queen as wittily savvy to the various political non-niceties of the land. Blunt’s own gay predelictions are drawn in similarly discrete, bemused strokes.
Couching its drama in clever recurring threads of art and philosophy (Blunt is investigating the mystery of faces hidden beneath the surfact of a Titian portrait), “A Question of Attribution” is first-class upscale entertainment. Tech values are fine if recognizably on the level of televid production; what matters here is the terrific precision of the writing and acting.
Smartly nuanced with wry comic and tragic elements, film should prove a major hit with its targeted Anglophile audience.