To call Alan Bennett an icon in the British creative community is an understatement. Rising to notoriety in the 60s as a member of Beyond the Fringe, a comedic troupe including Jonathan Miller and the dynamic duo of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Bennett's career would take off and soar to all mediums, including the big screen where his most "mainstream" works, "The Madness of George III" (famously re-titled for the ignorant who wondered how they missed George and George II) and "The History Boys," Bennett's career writing and adapting previous material for British television has resulted in a treasure trove of true gems. Collected in a four-disc set, "The Alan Bennett Collection" provides viewers with a sampler of Bennett's small screen offerings, including his acclaimed "An Englishman Abroad," as well as some earlier offerings, including his television debut, "Day Out."
"Day Out" marks Alan Bennett's early forays into television, coming off a successful start writing for the stage as well as an early spot behind the camera for Stephen Frears. Set in 1911 England, it's a structurally simple idea: a bunch of men spend a lazy day riding their bikes across the countryside, stopping only to converse and act against type. A lot of the humor in "Day Out" comes from the contrast of young to middle aged men in stiff suits, acting like schoolboys either by bickering politics or playing cricket. Bennett's writing here offers little in terms of twists or turns and while a short endeavor, there are spots where the narrative could have been trimmed, although tonally the lazy nature is vital to understanding the nature of the short. "Day Out" isn't the best piece of work in the collection, but is still an admirable tonal piece that's definitely worth spending 45-minutes with.
Also inherently "lazy" is "Sunset Across the Bay," another Bennett collaboration with Stephen Frears. Following the Brunett's, an aging retired couple (played subtly and convincingly by Harry Markham and Gabrielle Davis) who spend the first act of the feature making the move from their aging home in Leeds to a life of rest at the beach, "Sunset Across the Bay" captures Bennett's keen ear for dialogue (as well as an ability to integrate the absurd into everyday surroundings), making the mundane life of an average couple a treat to intrude on, from a simple conversation about whether either has checked out the bathroom on board a bus, to a bittersweet conversation where they realize, that after years of hard work, they have nothing to do. "Sunset Across the Bay" is a reminder of taking pleasure in the simple things in life and how easily the past can be consumed by the future, with little time to react.
The first entry in the collection to feel like an actual stage play, "A Visit from Miss Prothero" highlights both the polished dialogue of Bennett as well as the growing talents of Stephen Frears. Set entirely in the home of retired Mr. Dodsworth (Hugh Lloyd), Bennett makes a strange choice to employ a narrator to fill viewers in on details of both Mr. Dodsworth's life as well as his visitor, former secretary and titular character, Miss Prothero (Patricia Routledge). The (intentionally) stilted, nearly uncomfortable reunion between the two colleagues soon turns a bit sinister as the intentions of Prothero are made abundantly clear. Routledge does a great job lulling viewers in with her grandmotherly voice and proper demeanor, slowly sinking her verbal hooks into her relaxed former employer, dropping hints at how great things have been since his retirement. The story eventually does reach a gripping uncomfortableness, but the awkward narration on several occasions kills the mood established, leaving the visit from Miss Prothero more melodrama than engaging character study.
The less said about "Our Winnie," the better. While not a bad short by any means, there is an intentionally underlying disdain by one of the main characters towards her daughter, Winnie, a mentally handicapped woman. Bennett's script is less about the dialogue, and more about the actions of the characters, focusing on two plot threads that eventually meet in the final minutes. While the relationship between Winnie and her mother as they accompany another relative to the grave of Winnie's father, is intended to be the main focal point, the tone unevenly jumps between saccharine and broad (especially in the portrayal of Winnie), to cruel and mean-spirited.
More interesting is the introduction of a young photographer whose exchange with a cemetery attendant is legitimately funny and very real, allowing Bennett to have his characters make a mountain out of a molehill, engaging some crisp, cutting dialogue and just a slight bit of absurdity. Alas, this exchange is all too fleeting and when the photographer meets Winnie and her family, the resolution is earnest but once again, sickly sweet. "Our Winnie" is best skipped by all but the most hardcore Bennett fans as it doesn't do his writing talents the justice they deserve.
"A Woman of No Importance" is a heartbreaking acting clinic put on by the beloved but still heavily underrated Patricia Routledge. Bennett's script is a series of monologues by Miss (Routledge) as she recalls a trip to the doctor that quite obviously implies she's gravely ill. Routledge's tremendous command of emotions combined with Bennett's ability to humanely capture a woman recalling the vivid details of a turning point in her life, that would otherwise be forgotten on an uneventful day, will fail to break only the coldest of hearts. As the story progresses, Routledge transforms her performance subtly in both physical and verbal manners, allowing an intimate look into a slowly fading woman who fails to lose sight of the little things in life, especially the ability to find humor in the bleakest of situations. "A Woman of No Importance" is one of the finest pieces in the collection and a masterpiece of simple, thoughtful filmmaking, and will resonate with viewers long after the disc it resides on has returned to the case.
Largely touted as Bennett's finest work, "An Englishman Abroad," is a pleasing, but ultimately disappointing minor drama. Based on actual events, specifically the meeting between spy Guy Burgess (played understatedly by Alan Bates) and actress Coral Browne (playing herself here) in the late 50s. Admittedly, not having a prior knowledge of the Cambridge spy ring likely leaves a viewer like myself in the dark, but that aside, nothing about the production feels spectacular.
Running a slow hour, director John Schlesinger, feels off his game, leaving the fine cast to carry the weight of the story. The short's final act does carry an emotional impact and the casting of Browne as herself adds a sense of fluidity and extra relevance to the proceedings, but try as I might, Bennett's take on events seems underdeveloped and in a few places, heavy handed. Far from horrible, "An Englishman Abroad" feels more like a poorly shot straight stage adaptation, than a poorly written short film. Definitely worth watching if only for the based on true events connection, but Bennett's handling of similar themes is handled with much more skill and craftsmanship in the later "A Question of Attribution."
Bennett's biggest departure in style comes from the mids-80s period drama/thriller, "The Insurance Man." Afflicted by a mysterious skin condition he believes to be the result of an accident at the dye factory he's employed with, young Franz (Robert Hines) quickly finds himself drawn into a grounded, but no less confusing and frightening world of bureaucracy and double speak, that echoes shades of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," but is far more grounded and sophisticated. If the premise sounds Kafkaesque, its because Bennett lays it on thick, naming his protagonist after the famed writer, who in real life battled an equally frustrating insurance company. Add to the mix, the presence of the enigmatic, slick Dr. Kafka (Daniel Day Lewis), the only man who Franz feels can help him, and you have a near perfect blend of suspense, humanity and irony, in only the way Alan Bennett could tie it all together.
"The Insurance Man" is a rather unassuming production, giving the feel that once you've seen it the first time, there is another layer to be discovered on subsequent viewings. The blend of various themes is seamless and as the story progresses the sense of confusion and absurdity experienced by Franz is shared with the audience, without once sacrificing an overall cohesion to the plot. For most the draw of the film will be an early performance by Daniel Day Lewis, who had yet to find his commercial mainstream breakout in "My Left Foot," but is no less skilled, sinking into the role of the mysterious, seemingly compassionate double talker. Day Lewis' screen time is sparse, and fortunately Hines handles himself competently as a sympathetic protagonist, aided at all turns by a polished script and strong supporting cast. It's worth noting that viewers who read the most modest biographical sketch on Kafka prior to watching the film will come away with a richer sense of meaning, but it's far from necessary.
Following his Kafka inspired tale, Bennett once again mines the halls of literary history, this time going on step further and doing what he does best, exploring a slice of life, with author Marcel Proust as the focal point. Set at the turn of the century, in Proust's famed residence, Bennett has a hard sell with viewers, as Proust himself, portrayed by Alan Bates is in no uncertain terms a jackass. Continually harassing his assistant Celeste (Janet McTeer), going as far as to wait until she shares an intimate moment with her husband, on leave from fighting in the war, to beckon her to his side. Sympathy is intended to be garnered from Proust's physically frail state, but as the story unfolds, the crippled soul of the brilliant and tortured author strikes a more resonant chord.
"102 Boulevard Haussmann" is a story of emotion and love, as Proust soon befriends a young musician, Massis (Paul Rhys) himself an injured soldier whose imminent return to duty looms overhead. Proust finds a kindred spirit in Massis, who understands what Proust understands about the nature of the arts. One of the finer exchanges in the short comes as Massis discusses with Proust why his dream instrument is not the legendary Stradivarius, but instead an equally fine but lesser known violin. Bates' acting is tiptop, wordlessly conveying the respect and admiration for the young man's devotion to music. Understanding Proust's real life homosexuality makes a second level to the relationship more clear initially, however Bennett slyly makes the connection clear in the short's close. The only true shame of the production is the underdeveloped platonic relationship between Proust and Celeste, which has its strong points, but gets pushed to the backburner for quite some time.
While the ultimate exchange between Blunt and the Queen is the most talked about scene in the production, the moments leading up to it are what make viewers care so much about a man accused of being a traitor. The focus is almost solely on Blunt's work restoring a painting that hides a secret (a metaphor for himself or something more sinister?) and in these moments we get great little Bennett traits, including a wicked sense of humor. A sight gag involving a photo and a character named Chubb is a testament to Bennett's smart brand of humor that doesn't take itself so seriously that it can't have some childish fun. Bennett leaves more questions than answers and Fox's take on the material leaves us forever unsure who James Blunt was on the inside. "A Question of Attribution" should be required viewing for aficionados of the spy and espionage genre and one of the few Bennett works that newcomers would find both welcoming and rewarding. Pure class all the way.
The remaining two shorts, "Dinner at Noon" and "Portrait or Bust" give the feel of entries that would have been better served as bonus features. Both focus on Bennett personally as he tackles the subjects of class via life in a hotel in "Dinner at Noon," and life views via art interpretation in "Portrait or Bust." Both shorts are targeted at Bennett fans, especially "Dinner at Noon," which is a chore to slog through. Bennett's personality shines through, but the narrative connection is sloppy and there's not enough gold to warrant an entire viewing, let alone repeat viewings. "Portrait or Bust" however, fares far better and is actually worth watching for non-fans who have never seen a Bennett production. The author is very candid relating childhood tales and life views through his then (and now) interpretation of artwork. Bennett's humor and ability to poke fun at himself is welcome, as are the more personal moments and insights. "Portrait or Bust" is arguably a little long, but unlike "Dinner at Noon," is definitely worth working through in one sitting.
All main features are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Spanning a time period of 1972 to 1992, quality varies, but no one title exhibits more defects than another. "The Insurance Man" does stand out as the most visually pleasing transfer, but that should come as no surprise given it is the one entry in the collection to benefit from a high level of production design and cinematography.
All main features are presented with a simple English 2.0 mix. A few of the earlier productions have their moments when dialogue is muddled with the on-location segments of "Our Winnie" and "Sunset Across the Bay" being the most noted offenders. Distortion is nearly non-existent, and while nothing here is outstanding, the dialogue driven nature of the features never require them to be. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The two official extras are optional short video introductions by Bennett before each feature. I'd recommend viewing them afterwards, so as to not sully one's initial interpretation of the stories. The other extra is a 20-minute interview with Bennett which when coupled with "Dinner at Noon" and "Portrait or Bust" gives a good feel for who Alan Bennett the man is.
"The Alan Bennett Collection" is an interesting mix of straightforward slice-of-life stories, historically inspired tributes to famed authors, and alternate viewpoints of the life of a spies. The common thread through all of Alan Bennett's works presented here is the examination of the mundane and the characters involved in the mundane. Only "The Insurance Man" feels like a major departure from form, but even that remains true to common Bennett themes and mannerisms. While not every entry is a success ("Day Out," "A Visit from Miss Prothero," and "Our Winnie" are the only pieces that fail to hit homeruns), all are fine examples of mature, accessible drama. I entered this set very much a stranger to Alan Bennett outside his major cinematic efforts, and left a fan. His writing speaks to all viewers regardless of subject matter or class, for in the end Bennett appeals to universal human themes, both big and small. Recommended.