- 1 Robert A. Rosenstone comments on the high-brow prejudice against the biopic “Nobody ev (...)
- 2 George Custen, Bio/Pics. How Hollywood Constructed History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutge (...)
- 3 “The diversity of biopics is accounted for by the genre’s propensity for hybridization, much (...)
1Most of the fairly few film historians and critics interested in biographical films recall the long-lasting critical disdain for the biopic genre. Biopics may be commercially viable, and perhaps precisely because some become box-office hits, they are often deemed low-quality products1 This is all the more perplexing since the genre has raised a number of new stimulating perspectives since George F. Custen’s groundbreaking essay on its classical Hollywood form2. While most studies attempt to offer some classifications – through historical periodisation, semantic content of different trades and occupations, or through gender – most analyses concur to highlight the remarkable fluidity of the genre. For film genre specialist Raphaëlle Moine, the biopic is characterised by its propensity for hybridisation : “La diversité des biopics a partie liée avec la capacité du genre à s’hybrider, comme c’est le cas de tous les genres qui tirent leur spécificité de leurs caractéristiques sémantiques.”3
- 4 Márta Minier and Maddalena Pennacchia (eds.), “Introduction”, Adaptation, Intermediality and (...)
- 5 Among others: Linda Hutcheon A Theory of Adaptation, New York and London: Routledge, 2 (...)
- 6 Márta Minier and Maddalena Pennacchia (eds.), “Introduction”, op. cit., 7.
2Likewise, Márta Minier and Maddalena Pennacchia define the biopic as a “formulaic yet elastic genre” in the fruitful introduction to Adaptation, Intermediality and the British Celebrity Biopic.4 The media scholars challengingly treat the biopic as a form of adaptation and an example of intermediality, which fosters a renewed consideration of timeworn questions of fidelity to so-called “original texts”.5 Claiming the biopic should be celebrated for its impurity, Minier and Pennacchia offer a critical framework to transcend the traditional fiction-versus-fact debate: “Presenting the biopic as adaptation may come across as a slightly unorthodox proposition first (and hardly an approach adopted in biopic studies up to now), yet on close inspection, the biopic as a form appears to be the adaptation par excellence.”6 This approach seems particularly appropriate when the main characters’ lives are notoriously elusive and shrouded in secrecy.
- 7 Mata Hari is certainly an exception with Greta Garbo personifying the Dutch dancer in George (...)
- 8 Biographer William J. Mann reports: “Rex Reed, usually squarely in Schlesinger’s corner […] (...)
3Because their lives are wrapped in mystery, spies have long been figures of fascination and speculation, and as such, it is little wonder they have spawned some of the most long-lasting profitable film series in cinema. Nonetheless, apart from a few exceptions,7 biopics about actual secret agents are scarce and scanty. Most spy fiction films, even when based on real agents, only loosely refer to facts which are used to foreground elements of thriller, adventure or romance. While biopics, more than any other genres, blur the distinction between facts and fiction, the fact that a secret agent’s actual life events were never meant to be disclosed often leads to speculations and revisions long after the events occurred. What is more, turning a secret agent’s life into a well-documented biography somehow means the spy has been exposed and that he has therefore failed in his/her job. However flamboyant, the figure of traitor does not always prove as appealing as a James Bond character, as illustrated by the mitigated reviews and relative box office failure of John Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), based on the lives of Christopher John Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee who were arrested for selling classified documents to the Soviet Union in the 1970s.8
- 9 Tom Brown and Belen Vidal (eds), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, New York & A (...)
- 10 Ian Christie notes that the advent of the “talkies” led to “a new appetite for film bi (...)
- 11 Ian Christie argues that “the meaning of biographical film cannot be reduced to simpli (...)
- 12 The narrative device of using a witness or several witnesses to investigate the life of a (...)
4How then to conceive of a biopic about secret agents, piercing the very secrecy that defines their lives? Screenwriter Alan Bennett and director John Schlesinger took up this challenge in two films that form a diptych on two of the most notorious spies in British history, Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad (1983) and Anthony Blunt in A Question of Attribution (1991). In keeping with a “genre that feeds fantasies of national identity”9 and like most British biopics in particular, the two films display a sustained concern for “national biography”.10 However, they prove early examples of biopics conceived as self-reflexive and intermedial allegories.11 Rather than claiming to disclose the real ‘self’ of their biographees, the films imaginatively engage with the deliberate entanglement of life and fiction while foregrounding its dramatic strategies of representations. As the two former spies in both narratives think they are in control of appearances in general and their self-appearance in particular, the films explore the paradoxical tensions of prying into a life that was devoted to secrecy, leading to playful reflections on appearances, how they are coded and may be decoded. To dramatise these two processes, the two films reveal intermedial relationships between the main characters’ lives and parable narratives based on metaphors from the stage (performing and sartorial art) and art history (question of authorship and authenticity). Using a more traditional narrative device, they also focus on the inquisitive journey of a privileged witness whom the viewers can identify with as they endeavour to unmask some truths about the former spies.12
- 14 Alan Bennett has acquired a ‘national treasure’ status, but one would be wrong to confine hi (...)
5Although the two films originate in two different media (An Englishman Abroad was first conceived for television before becoming a play, whereas A Question of Attribution was adapted from the stage), both are the products of the same team composed of screenwriter Alan Bennett, director John Schlesinger and producer Innes Lloyd. This project marked director John Schlesinger’s return to Great Britain and the BBC (where he had started his career at the end of the 1950s), allowing him to resume the partnership he enjoyed with British television after the critical and commercial failure of his Hollywood film Honky Tonk Freeway (1981). But as is customary for television, the two films are first and foremost the brainchildren of their screenwriter: Alan Bennett, now considered “one of the most popular contemporary British dramatists”, was deemed “the most important and innovative British television playwright since Dennis Potter”.14
- 15 Apart from Kara McKechnie’s book, most critical studies focus on his stage productions
6An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution belong to the second period of Bennett’s television production where notorious spies and famous writers figure prominently. Most critics (Wolfe 1999, O’Mealy 2001, McKechnie 2007)15 consider plays on spies and on writers as one literary group because they focus on well-known historical figures and deal with the same notion of a hidden identity, a secret self. Spying, its motives and methods, is thus set in parallel with the activity of biography writing, leading to a self-reflexive dimension on the biographer’s endeavour to use other people’s lives as raw material. Literary scholar Joseph H. O’Mealy comments:
- 16 Joseph H. O’Mealy, Alan Bennett: A Critical Introduction, London & New York: Routledge, 2001 (...)
Spies and writers are secret sharers in a literal sense; they observe where often they shouldn’t, and they pass along what they have seen, often to the distress of those they have observed. They work best in solitude and isolation. In Bennett’s world, their loyalties are often only to themselves, rather than to any ideology.16
7If the biographer is the ultimate spy, there is much dramatic irony in using the lives of famous spies as a means of exploring relationships between appropriation and authorship, between life and art.
- 17 For example, the television mini-series Cambridge Spies (BBC, 2003) or Marek Kanievska (...)
- 18 Like the other members of the “Cambridge ring”, Guy Burgess (1911-1963) was recruited (...)
- 19 Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) made a prominent career as an art historian. He was made Sur (...)
8It is no small irony either that in both films, Bennett focuses on a moment in the spies’ lives when they have long ceased to be active as secret agents. Eschewing either a classical cradle-to-grave scenario or even a historical account of their involvement in spying,17 the films are characterised by very little action. Far from glamourising the secret agents’ lives as in a James Bond movie, the two films are set in periods following or prior to the famous spies’ emerging in the spotlight: seven years after Guy Burgess disappeared to escort Maclean in his escape to Moscow;18 some years and a few hours before Sir Anthony Blunt was finally exposed to the media in 1979.19 The two films are structured around an apparently anecdotal, yet highly significant encounter, foregrounding the enigmatic character of the main protagonists. Based on an actual event in An Englishman Abroad, only plausible in A Question of Attribution, a single incident is designed as a way of gaining insight into the spies’ life as a whole. The films, however, do not pretend to divulge the “inner truth” of the characters.
- 21 See Ian Christie’s quote in note 12.
- 22 Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 1 (...)
9The biopics question the motivations that led these men to betray their country as well as their class, which is tackled only indirectly through a metaphoric network that dramatizes the notions of secrecy, betrayal and forgery, leading to a reflection about aspects of Englishness, English values and class system. It is highly significant that in both films the former spy should meet with a woman who is also defined by her performance, either by profession (as an actress) or status (as Her Majesty the Queen). For the two spies who have betrayed all the attributes that define them, identity can only be a question of performance and a mask. In this respect, both films articulate a vision of the biopic as “typically allegorical”,21 the concept of identity itself being subject to metaphors, just like the biography genre has been defined figuratively as autopsy and portrait.22 An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution dramatize the elusive nature of secret identities through overtones and mirroring effects between life and art, using performing art and sartorial symbols in the first film and an elaborate investigation into art history in the second.
- 24 Bennett comments: “It was kind of funny because Coral was at that time in her [lat (...)
10Just after the opening credits, a title warns the viewers of the fictional aspects of the film: “Although some incidents are imaginary, this is a true story. It happened to Coral Browne in 1958.” Interestingly, the fact that Coral Browne plays her own self, although she no longer has the age of her part, adds to documentary authenticity.24 As Alan Bennett explains in the introduction to the film, An Englishman Abroad was inspired from an anecdote he was told by the Australian actress. In 1958, she was touring with the Shakespeare Memorial Company (renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961) in Moscow when she actually met Guy Burgess who invited her for lunch, asking her to bring in a tape measure so that she could take his measurements and order him a new suit.
11From the onset, the film sets up a series of visual and aural discrepancies that reveal the deceptive nature of appearances, playing ironically with the contrasting juxtapositions of British and Soviet cultures. The opening credits show the film’s title in white letters on a bright red background, strongly evocative of the red flag and preparing the zoom-in effect on a portrait of Stalin that appears next. During the whole sequence, the soundtrack plays Jack Buchanan’s singing “Who stole my heart away”, the only record Guy Burgess still owns in his Moscow flat, and which he plays over and over again. Rather than prying into the political motivations of the notorious spy, the film pokes fun at any ideological discourse, either to blend the nostalgic appeal of communism with the sentimental lure of popular music, or to highlight an irreducible contrast between stern Soviet politics and Western levity. As the camera tracks to the right, stylised portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin appear, but then, as the camera tracks out to provide a wider perspective, the pictures turn out to be banners outside a theatre. Likewise, once inside the building, as the camera sweeps on the audience showing the square dour faces of Russian apparatchiks, the language we first hear turns out to be English. Not only are appearances deceptive, but questions of ideology are reduced to performance and theatricality.
- 25 “Welcome dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern! / Moreover that we much did long to see you, / (...)
- 27 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, scene 1, line 5.
12As the camera stops among the audience, Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) is introduced dozing off and snoring. The spectators hear lines from Hamlet where Claudius welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, telling them of “Hamlet’s transformation”25 and asking them to spy on him! The diegetic play adds metatextual irony to the film by using the stage as a mirror to the narrative with madcap Burgess playing the fool. First he reinterprets the visual gag from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942), when he hurries out in the middle of a scene, disturbing the audience as well as the actors, and then pretends to be sick and steals Coral’s soap, cigarettes, bottle of Scotch, even her powder case, which he uses before exiting the dressing room, as if preparing for a performance. Coral herself thinks she is in a “French farce” when Burgess bursts in and vomits in her dressing room sink. Embodying Queen Gertrude, she ponders over the surprise meeting, and exclaims: “Ah mine own lord, what have I seen tonight!”27
13And just as in Hamlet, everyone keeps spying on everyone else. Not only is Burgess constantly followed by a shadow, but the actors are being bugged in their hotel rooms; Coral Browne raises suspicion as soon as she asks for directions, unaware that she is followed by sinister-looking men in a black car. Even at the British embassy where Coral finds little help from the Russians, the two employees (modern-day Rosencrantz and Guildenstern working for the Foreign Service) are snooping on their secretary who is trying to help Coral. Repeated zooms in and out increase the impression of pervasive surveillance, whereas Moscow’s bleak, snowy streets and stern buildings appear like a prison through recurring shots of bars, railings and window lines. Interior spaces are composed of long corridors and impressive staircases filmed in high or low angle shots, crushing the individuals.
- 28 “From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the (...)
- 29 “Pardon me for saying so, dear, but the comrades seem to me a sad disappointment in every (...)
14Nevertheless, Burgess is first and foremost a prisoner of mirror images. His first apparition, after bursting into Coral’s dressing room is a reflection in a mirror. He cannot help looking at himself in the mirror before leaving the dressing room, or the gents’, and most significantly, he is shaving before a mirror when Coral arrives at his flat, reciting lines from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, another prisoner, doomed by a mysterious curse which prevents her from facing the world. Instead, she can only look into a mirror where reflected images are “shadows of the world”, to end up “half-sick of shadows”. As we first hear the lines “Tirra lirra” from the end of part III,28 the empty staircase is filmed in a vertical high angle shot, highlighting its endless spiral and central emptiness, conveying a visual image of imprisonment. And again, it is in front of a mirror that Guy Burgess attempts to explain his behaviour, when Coral expresses doubts regarding the rewards he could obtain in case he betrayed his country.29 When she compares him to Oscar Wilde, another famous homosexual and an exile for crimes against the society that had pampered him, Burgess answers: “No, no. Though he was a performer. And I was a performer. Both vain. But I never pretended. If I wore a mask, it was to be exactly what I seemed.” Apart from the lame “at the time I thought it seemed the right thing to do”, Bennett’s Burgess defines himself as merely a performer of his own self, his motivations stuck to a mask which has replaced any “real” face behind the disguise.
- 30 As Coral kneels to measure the inside of his leg, Burgess comments: “The knee is s (...)
15In this respect, Burgess is reduced to clinging to his outfit as the ultimate expression of his character, paradoxically needing to “feel English” to exist, if only to be able to betray his homeland. Burgess is shown relishing all the signifiers of Englishness, multiplying the number of references and quotations – telling the severe-looking female caretaker of “her pronounced resemblance to the late Ernest Bevin”, singing Isaac Watts’s hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” in the gents, quoting Tennyson’s poetry or Tristram Shandy,30 and singing in a duet with his Russian boyfriend “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, another story of mistaken identities and a hidden prince. The costume he asks Coral to order (along with other meaningful elements of his past, such as an Etonian tie, a bowler hat and pyjamas) proves revelatory of the inner contradiction Burgess never fully explains, except when he admits missing England, the country he betrayed by giving top-level military secrets to the enemy. Or when he recalls the perfect symbolic stage where he used to perform outrageously, following the upper-class rule that if you go to the right tailor, you do not seem suspicious, or, as in his own words: “if you don’t wish to conform in one thing, you should conform in all the others.” As Joseph H. O’Mealy aptly sums up: “In some way, it is Burgess’s performance of his Englishness that is his major enigma and triumph.” The last scene of the film opens with a close-up of a brand new Etonian tie which Burgess is tying up once more in front of a mirror, humming “He remains an Englishman” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. The following shot shows him walking jauntily across a snowy bridge in his splendid new suit and coat, the only pedestrian wielding an umbrella in Moscow.
16As the camera tracks out, recalling the first shot and its altered perspectives, the tune swells up into a chorus, highlighting the bittersweet irony of the image of the lonely exiled spy who stands out from the crowd thanks to the exterior signs of what he once rejected. Gilbert and Sullivan’s highly ambivalent song, marked by deeply ironical lyrics that mock uncritical jingoism, merely adds to the critical humor displayed by the film towards its main protagonist.
17While Guy Burgess’s portrait is captured through his sartorial preoccupation, Anthony Blunt (James Fox) is equally depicted as an aesthete, only interested in the world of high art. But he is subject to the same type of investigation as dubious paintings undergo. While An Englishman Abroad draws an explicit parallel between spying and performing, A Question of Attribution examines the issue of secrecy and treachery through forgery. Alan Bennett explains that the analogy seemed obvious enough to him after reading an article about an actual painting in the Royal Collection, formerly attributed to Titian and originally called Titian and Andrea dei Franceschi before being retitled the Triple Portrait. Cleaning, indeed, revealed a third figure, then X-ray scanning a fourth one, and finally when the painting was turned over, the contours of a fifth character was discovered.
18The whole film is structured around its final scene which refers to the public exposure, in 1979, of the then Sir Anthony Blunt as the fourth man among the Cambridge spies. From the onset, Blunt is presented as a man in remission: he is introduced when he is about to undergo an X-ray examination at a surgery. One of the first shots, which concludes the opening credits, is a blue X-ray that fills the screen. We later understand Blunt has fully recovered from bowel cancer, but the surgeon adds: “Now of course, we have to keep an eye on things.” Ominous, regular countdowns are bound to occur, until the final exposure when Blunt’s face is submitted to the blinding flashes of reporters, before being freeze-framed in overexposure, just like the X-ray scanning.
- 34 Military Intelligence section 5: The United Kingdom’s counter-intelligence and sec (...)
19Ironically, the doctor’s optimistic verdict, telling Blunt that “the surveillance relaxes, you see”, is contradicted by another line of inquiry, led by MI5 (Military Intelligence Section 5)34 about the man’s past as a secret agent. In an early scene, Donleavy (Geoffrey Palmer), the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, grows impatient at the lack of progress in the Blunt case and appoints a new interrogator called Chubb (David Calder). At that point, the second line of investigation overlaps with a third one which involves Blunt’s discovery of a third, then fourth and even fifth hidden figure in the painting formerly attributed to Titian. All these intermingled plotlines ironically comment on each other, notably when Chubb pretends to take an interest in art history and ends up discussing Titian’s Allegory of Prudence as well as the Triple Portrait, simultaneously questioning Blunt about piles of photographs and slides that show people Blunt is expected to name.
- 35 Joseph H. O’Mealy op. cit., 67.
- 36 Joseph H. O’Mealy explains that at the time of the first stage performances, the s (...)
20On the other hand, the notions of fakes and forgeries are also at the core of the chance encounter between Blunt and the Queen (Prunella Scales) at Buckingham Palace, a scene rife with double entendres and ambiguous meanings, described as “a linguistic cat and mouse game”,35 all the more so as the Queen appears quite artless in adopting the same populist and simplistic view on art as Chubb.36 As the Queen learns of Blunt’s investigation about her painting wrongly attributed to Titian, she wonders how many forgeries she might possess. Her question no doubt refers to her picture collection, yet it becomes imbued with far more ambiguity when she adds:
I suppose, too, the context of the painting matters. Its history and provenance (is that the word?) confer on it a certain respectability. This can’t be a forgery, it’s in such and such a collection, its background and pedigree are impeccable… isn’t that how the argument goes? So if someone comes across a painting with the right background and pedigree, Sir Anthony, then it must be hard, I imagine – even inconceivable – to think that it is not what it claims to be. And even supposing someone in such circumstances did have suspicion, they would be chary about voicing them. Easier to leave things as they are. Stick to the official attribution rather than let the cat out of the bag and say, “here we have a fake”.
21Meanwhile the camera moves closer and closer on Blunt’s face, revealing his puzzlement and slight worry that she might be talking of an altogether different kind of fake with a pedigree. The Queen’s parting remark, “be careful how you go up the ladder, Sir Anthony, one could have a nasty fall”, is equally full of dramatic irony. Blunt confesses his confusion to Colin, the young footman who asks him about the content of their impromptu conversation: “I was talking about art. I’m not sure that she was.”
22Significantly, the term “attributed” comes up again when Chubb warns Sir Anthony of his imminent unmasking:
You’ve come at the end of the road, you know. More and more questions are being asked. The consequences are going to be embarrassing not just for you but for us to. It’ll be painful. You’ll be the object of scrutiny. Explanations will be sought after, your history gone into. You will be named. Attributed.
23Indeed, the debate over attribution is only part of the story; and the nagging issue of interpretation is equally intrusive. As Chubb finds fault with the way the previous painters dealt with perspective, Blunt explains that “art has no goal, it evolves but does not necessarily progress”, and these painters should be judged “on their own terms”, that is, in their specific historical context. Chubb exclaims: “That’s exactly the same argument you used to explain what you did in the thirties: ‘it seemed like the right thing to do at the time’. These painters didn’t have a grasp on perspective and neither did you. The difference being, of course, that art has no consequence.” Blunt’s justification for his past behaviour echoes the very words Burgess used to vindicate himself. Both allege their former actions must be seen in perspective, just as artists should be judged in their own context, on their own terms, thus moving their treachery into artistic spheres, far from any political content or moral implication. The irony is that Blunt admits he cannot see properly, telling the restorer when he first visits his workshop:
I should warn you. I don’t have an eye. K. Clark was saying the other day […] that people who look at Old Masters fall into three groups: those who see what it is without being told; those who see it when you tell them; and those who can’t see it whatever you do. I just about make the second category. For an art historian, it’s rather humiliating.
- 37 The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (1833)
24Ironically, just as he ends his speech, Blunt receives a phone call from newly appointed Chubb who wants to meet him, and as he answers “I see”, only his mirror reflection is seen. In the next scene, which takes place during a reception at the National Gallery, Sir Anthony is shown in front of a young, blindfolded woman in Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,37 providing no doubt an ominous comment on Blunt’s ability to see what is coming.
- 38 “Remote though all this is from our sensibility, there is a sense in which one might feel (...)
25As a matter of fact, suffering, martyrdom and treachery are the themes of Blunt’s lecture about the Old Masters at the Courtauld Institute. Commenting wryly on Breughel’s depiction of threshing “which we now do mechanically”, concerning a mythological scene with “sex, which we do mechanically also” and a crucifixion “which we do not do – or do differently”, Sir Anthony expatiates on figures of saints and martyrs subject to interrogation,38 a role he might identify with, although the figure of Judas looms equally large.
- 39 Taking the example of a crucifixion: “It is a world in which time means nothing. The (...)
- 40 What first draws the restorer’s attention to the Triple Portrait is that it looks (...)
26Even more interestingly, his comments upon the compositions of the paintings which conflate different periods of time within a single space, and where the future can be seen along with the present and the past,39 end up shedding light on the film’s chronological frame. The time sequence is deliberately vague and even misleading, compressing events which actually took place over a decade in what appears only a few months. What prevails again through the haphazard chronology is the imminent sense of Blunt’s disgrace as the result of a logical conclusion. The outcome is a biopic designed as a composite portrait that looks like a puzzle with a skewed perspective and disparate elements, just like the three men in the Triple Portrait who look as if they did not belong to the same painting, most probably completed at different periods and by different painters.40
27As the film keeps multiplying various types of pictures – from X-ray scans to paintings, photographs and projected slides – not only new meanings appear in the pictures, but new perspectives emerge through the film’s editing using graphic matches and dissolves: as the restorer carefully removes layers of pigment from the Triple Portrait, the appearing ear is humorously superimposed with a living ear which proves to be Chubb’s. At the end, Chubb is still pressing Blunt for naming names (“There is someone else. Someone behind you all. All the evidence points to it.”), but Sir Anthony goes on discussing his scholarly research. As he explains that a fifth character was found beneath the painting, the dissolve that follows superimposes the silhouette from the painting with Donleavy’s face reflected in a mirror. His final comment points to art’s resistance to any definitive interpretations, while the editing suggests that there is “something rotten” in the kingdom of the British Intelligence Service:
But who are they all? I don’t know that it matters. Behind them lurks other presences, other hands. A whole gallery of possibilities. The real Titian an Allegory of Prudence. The false one an Allegory of Supposition. It is never-ending.
- 41 “A puzzle picture, a visual paraphrase of the three ages of man, obviously, but so (...)
28Blunt’s portrait remains an enigma, “a puzzle picture” as the art historian calls Titian’s Allegory of Prudence.41 Yet the Queen herself willingly agrees with Blunt when he states that none of her portraits quite capture her: “I hope not. I don’t think one wants to be captured, does one? Not entirely, anyway.” And the film seems to endorse the idea that any portrait would be inadequate and incomplete as this part of the conversation shows only their feet, filmed from Philip’s perspective, the student assisting Blunt who is hiding under a sofa after being told to make himself scarce, should any royalty appear.
29The last option left to Sir Anthony, however, lies in facing the music for want of saving face, and putting on a good face. With no small irony, as Blunt prepares to leave the Courtauld Institute, his leave-taking evokes the ending of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). His encounter with the a hound of reporters about to bombard him with the flashlights of their cameras is thus introduced by a vertical high-angle shot on the magnificent staircase, accompanied on the soundtrack by a solemn Handel-like marching movement. The reference to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)’s final performance under the spotlight is doubly ironical: not only is Blunt’s celebrity, years after being the “real thing”, a bogus story, but for a man who spent his life thinking he was free from public scrutiny, the exposure now is now complete.
30In An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, Alan Bennett neither condones nor totally condemns the two main characters for taking part in the most notorious spy ring in British history. Like Coral in An Englishman Abroad, Bennett is somehow seduced by the plight of these men who so carefully built their lives on sham performance and fake pretense. But this does not mean he attempts to excuse their betrayal, or reveal some “secret self” that would provide some personal “Rosebud” explaining their actions.
- 42 For example when Chubbs asks him if he often visits the National Gallery, Blunt answers: “ (...)
31What comes out, however, in both cases, is a caustic portrayal of upper-class sophistry. The biopics depict both Burgess and Blunt as subjects that eschew all moral responsibility by focusing on aesthetic considerations – be they sartorial or pictorial. What is more, both are presented as perfect products of their upbringing, suggesting that spying was somehow the result of ultimate snobbery, rather than of an actual political conviction. Sir Anthony in particular is portrayed as an insufferable snob, complacent and conceited, correcting Chubb’s pronunciation of Marlborough College, and using the impersonal pronoun “one” just like the Queen,42 unable to hide his utter disdain of “common people”, as when he closes off a room in the National Gallery because “the public make it so intolerable”. James Fox gives a superb interpretation of the character’s upper-class accent and mannerisms, looking completely out of his depth when first visiting Chubbs in Purley, the interrogator’s middle-class neighbourhood, always pinching his nose and looking condescendingly blasé.
32Both spies’ life choices therefore seem the logical outcome of their background and upbringing, in a world where upper-class spheres are governed by secrecy and the main preoccupation is that of keeping up the appearances. “Mum’s the word” appears as a leitmotiv in the two films, with the tailor repeating the motto of his firm (“Mum is always the word here, madam, Moscow or Maidenhead, mum is always the word”), Chubb commenting on the Royal servants’ oath of secrecy (“Keeping mum is part of the job”), or even the young student wondering what it is like to work at Buckingham palace, before realizing the staff “don’t open [their] mouth”. As suggested by the tailor’s surprising association between the Soviet capital and a respectable English town on the Thames, the English upper-class and Establishment appear to adopt disconcerting rules of secrecy, looking very much like a closed society, exempt from public scrutiny and moral censure. Quite tellingly, when Coral shows her fellow actor Burgess’s letter asking for pyjamas to complete his outfit so that he can look “like a gent again”, the actor misreads “gent” for an “agent”, punning on the troubling likeness between the coded worlds of the spy and that of the English gentleman. As an Australian actress, Coral Browne vents a harsh criticism of establishment hypocrisy when a shop assistant refuses to fulfill Burgess’s order:
You were quite happy to satisfy this client when he was one of the most notorious buggers in London and a drunkard into the bargain. Only then he was in the Foreign Office. “Red piping on the sleeve, Mr. Burgess – but of course;” “A discreet monogram on the pocket, Mr. Burgess? Certainly. But not any more. I tell you – it’s pigs like you that make me understand why he went. Thank Christ I’m not English!
- 44 The whole speech goes as follows: “Listen, darling, I’m only an actress. Not a bri (...)
- 45 For example Richard Gott, reviewing Miranda Carter’s biographer of Anthony Blunt, writes i (...)
33However, Coral’s indignation is mitigated when the shop manager answers that the firm isn’t English either but Hungarian, which opens up another perspective on the historical context. What is more, while pretending to be “only an actress, not a bright lady” who has “never taken much interest in politics” and doesn’t like Communism “because it’s dull”, she proves highly critical of a member of the Establishment who betrayed his class and country but was reluctant to forgo all the privileges ensured by his former status. As Coral eloquently sums up: “you pissed in the soup, and we drank it.”44 Coral may claim to be an outsider to the British society, her judgment nevertheless seems to reflect the prevailing impression British people have had about the Cambridge spies.45 This is echoed at the beginning of A Question of Attribution when Donleavy expresses his exasperation at Blunt’s unwillingness to cooperate: “What I find galling is the spectacle of someone so patently having their cake and eating it. If he were languishing in Wormwood Scrubs, one wouldn’t care, but I see him every day in the Athenaeum.” But then Donleavy, who is repeatedly filmed attending secret meetings with Blunt, appears in superimposition as the “fifth man”, seeming to adopt the very have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude he denounced.
- 46 Kara McKechnie, op. cit., 5.
- 47 The notion of “ImpersoNation” is borrowed from Thomas Elsaesser although it is used (...)
34Although often classified as “apolitical and provincial”,46 Alan Bennett exposes the inner contradictions at the heart of the British society through the portraits of the two notorious spies, possibly voicing his own ambivalent thoughts regarding a country whose culture he nonetheless values and cherishes, while deploring the blatant hypocrisy of its institutions and its class system. As in an inverted picture – or an X-ray photograph – the two spies are the very embodiment, the “impersoNation”47 of the values they first rejected and then betrayed. Ironically enough, despite the betrayal of their country, they become ideal subjects for biopics that prove a consummate vehicle for both articulating and questioning a sense of national belonging.
- 48 Alan Bennett quoted in William J. Mann, op. cit., 495.
35Like Coral, who finds that Burgess has “bags of charm” and cannot help liking him “despite the fact he was sick in her basin”, Bennett is reluctant to vilify his characters while castigating the system that generated and nourished them, rendering their infamous behaviour possible. As he notes about Burgess: “There is a sense that an ironic attitude towards one’s country and a skepticism about one’s heritage are a part of that heritage. And so, by extension, is the decision to betray it. It is irony activated.”48 For all their despicable characters, their pathetically snobbish pretense, what makes Bennett’s spies impossible to hate is their remarkable – and so British – sense of irony. But the ultimate irony lies in the exposure of the façade the two spies are clinging to. As the two films rely on self-reflexive intermedial strategies of representation that foreground mirror effects and echoes between life and representational arts, they display a self-conscious awareness of their subjects as performers and “fake subjects”. As paramount forgers of their own lives, the two characters are ultimately trapped in their own games; Burgess, like The Lady of Shalott, is viewed imprisoned in mirror images, while Blunt is unmasked and X-rayed using the same techniques he uses within his own art investigation.