Thursday, 31 October 2013

An Englishman Abroad (1983)

At the end of Cambridge Spies (2003), when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean are deported to the USSR, Burgess looks at the white cliffs of Dover from his ship for the last time and passionately insists that Maclean doesn't miss this last glimpse of their homeland. I always found that scene very compelling. Yes, I am aware what the Cambridge Four did, and I do agree that they deserved their punishment, but I have always found the concept of living in exile extremely difficult to come to terms with. In the year 1958, the Australian actress Coral Browne accompanied the Royal Shakespeare Company to Moscow for a performance of Hamlet. Ms Browne played the role of Gertrude, and it was in that trip that she accidentally met Guy Burgess. Burgess, whose betrayal was the subject of extreme criticism, press curiosity (to put it mildly), and gossip, was living a banished life of disappointment in Moscow. An Englishman Abroad is about this chance meeting.

Timed at sixty one minutes, this television film was stupendous: both in the performances, and in the production. If Tom Hollander had given a critical performance of the young debauched Burgess in Cambridge and at the Foreign Office for the 2003 BBC series, the great Alan Bates preceded him by twenty years and performed to perfection the role of the disgraced spy in his later years. Coral Browne stars as herself, and apparently, most of the dialogues in the film are what had been really exchanged between her and Burgess.

Alan Bennett and John Schlesinger came together for the making of this film: the former writing the script, and the latter directing it, and nowhere can the genius of these two stars be more apparent, than in this production venture. The events took place during the highest glory of the communist regime (in the late fifties), but it was shot in the mid-eighties, when Communism had failed, and the Western Bloc had emerged quite victorious in the Cold War. Hence the irony in the dialogues, and the portrayal of Moscow is very bitter. Ms Browne's room has a hidden speaker in the chandelier, and Moscow apparently has no soap anywhere. Spying was so rampant, it looked like an epidemic, and the ordinary people of Moscow are portrayed in so poor a light that they appear quite a caricature of textbook Communists written by some Western Bloc elite. In the midst of this cold, lifeless graveyard of deception and want, swaggers Guy Burgess. His swagger is tragic because of the way he keeps a brave front and tries not to reveal that he is disappointed. The scene where Alan Bates eats his meagre lunch of raw tomatoes with raw garlic with relish while a surprised Coral Browne looks on, is tragic in its proportions. As a viewer I was grappling to fathom the depths of despair or staggering courage of Burgess, and found companionship in Ms Browne's tears at the realisation that Burgess continually played the music of John Buchanan to find solace in his exile. Later when he asks her if she knew him, with the acerbity that is typical of Coral Browne, she answers, "I suppose so. We nearly got married."

And yet all that swagger, all the putting of the brave fronts amounts to nothing in the scenes at the church, when listening to the choir, Alan Bates/Guy Burgess has tears rolling down his cheek. When he leaves Ms Browne outside the gates, he only tells her not to report back home that he is unhappy, for he really isn't. The comrades may have their weak points: the tailoring, the cuisine, or the absence of soap, but the USSR isn't a bad place after all. He did what he did because that felt right to him at that time.

Both Alan Bates and Coral Browne won BAFTAs for their performance, and I cannot remember another instance when it was more deserved. I have seen the dapper Alan Bates in films from the late sixties and early seventies (The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, Women in Love) mostly as passionate characters with a certain je ne sais quoi about the fluidity of their gender. His performance of the openly homosexual Guy Burgess in '83 brings a finality in the fluidity that his earlier characters have sought. Coral Browne's scenes in London, where she goes hunting for Burgess's suit, shoes, and night-suits are a gem.

Perhaps the film is slightly dubious in its sentiments. In the undercurrent of resounding pity for the spy who now has to live in cold Russia for betraying his country -- the rich, civilised, well-tailored, and well-fed England -- one feels sorry for the disgraced spy before being recalled to the horrors of his crime. Perhaps that was indeed the intention: to show that no trespass, however grave, is beyond the twilight zone of justification and transgression, beyond discipline and punish.