Feb 6, 2012

DVD Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)

DVD Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)

Note: This article contains minor spoilers about the book A Murder of Quality (but not the movie).

John le Carré’s second Smiley novel, 1962’s A Murder of Quality (review here), wasn’t adapted for the screen until nearly thirty years after its publication. It must have come as a surprise to readers and viewers when the feature-length television adaptation popped up so long after the fact. It’s possible that the BBC had been brainstorming how best to bring Smiley back to the screen ever since Smiley’s People scored so well with audiences and critics alike in 1982. Was an adaptation of 1989’s The Secret Pilgrim considered as a vehicle for Alec Guinness to return to the role? It would be a problematic novel to adapt, but I can’t imagine the prospect wasn't at least bandied about. Perhaps it was and Guinness turned it down. Whatever the case, that wasn’t made and TV producers were probably wondering how they could possibly top the big budget international production of Smiley’s People… and realized that they couldn’t. But if they went back to that second novel, a rich little period mystery set at a prep school, then they wouldn’t have to compete with past Smiley TV adaptations. It was small enough—and different enough—that direct comparisons would be unlikely. Of course that’s all pure speculation. Perhaps the impetus came from le Carré himself. As it happened, A Murder of Quality didn't come from the BBC, but from Thames Television, and it's a far different animal from the sprawling miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.

Since A Murder of Quality isn’t a spy story and isn’t set at the Circus, the only series character involved is George Smiley himself. Denholm Elliott (Codename: Kyril, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is quite good in the role (and certainly looks the part), playing a more seemingly befuddled Smiley than Guinness. It’s almost as if every actor who’s ever tackled the role has chosen to focus on a different aspect of the literary Smiley’s personality. If you could assemble them all together into some avant garde production along the lines of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There (which featured multiple actors portraying separate aspects of the musician’s persona), you would have a complete representation of the character from the books. If James Mason is the Smiley the Lovelorn Cuckold and Alec Guinness is Smiley the Introvert and Gary Oldman is Smiley the Ruthless, then Elliott is Smiley the Fool. Of course, the fool is just a disguise for Smiley—a Lord Peter Wimseyish defense mechanism—and Elliott conveys that well. But it’s certainly a legitimate aspect of the literary Smiley. Elliott’s Smiley is Smiley as he’s perceived by people who don’t know better.

Le Carré himself penned the screenplay for A Murder of Quality… and, surprisingly, he wasn’t the most faithful of adaptors. It’s a weird experience watching this TV version right after reading the book, because the differences stand out more than the similarities. A lot of the same material is still there, but it’s been shuffled around, and good lines have been redistributed to different characters. It’s not that it’s been shortened (which wouldn’t be necessary for such a slim volume), but rewritten. This is the rare opportunity to witness an author with a chance to rewrite his second novel thirty years later, and observe exactly what he would have done differently. Personally, I preferred the original.

In his introduction to later editions of the novel, le Carré said, “Rereading the book now, I find a flawed thriller redeemed by ferocious and quite funny social comment.” For the screenplay he clearly accentuated the social comment, but it loses some of its bite in being moved to the fore. If he attempted to “fix” the thriller elements, he didn’t do a very good job. The mystery becomes more obvious in the film, and the cleverest part (involving a letter case behind) is streamlined so as to remove all the fun of the clue. Even the primary suspect in the murder mystery is changed. In the book, we’re led to always suspect the victim’s husband, Stanley Rhode (David Threlfall), because he’s mentioned in his late wife’s letter—the letter that gets Smiley involved in the case to begin with. And for all the reader knows, he could have done it. But in the movie, we see him, through a subjective camera, come home alone and discover his wife’s body and react, so we’re reasonably certain all along that he did not commit the crime! And, unfortunately, that doesn’t leave too many viable red herrings.

We also learn about Stella’s true nature much sooner in the movie than in the book—pretty much right away, in fact, which seriously dulls one of the novel’s biggest surprises and leaves us with a much more conventional Agatha Christie-type mystery. But because of the lack of red herrings and misdirection, it’s a lot more predictable than your typical Christie mystery. While the omission does streamline the plot, the book’s ingenious misdirection doesn’t seem to have been cut for the sake of time; what fit in a 150-page novel should fairly easily translate to a 90-minute drama. Instead, I suspect that le Carré purposely pared away a lot of the story’s “thriller” aspects in order to allow the social satire to better shine.

Indeed, he keeps much of his best (which is to say, nastiest—and funniest) dialogue verbatim, though while the lines were mostly Shane Hecht’s in the book, many have now been awarded to other characters, as Shane is a fairly minor role in the film. In fact, le Carré now gives the murderer some of Shane’s best lines, in order to accentuate his or her own class consciousness and drive home the already biting critique of the British class system. The move rather backfires, though, I’m afraid. In moving the social satire to the foreground, the author’s motives become too transparent. Such commentary works best when it’s surreptitiously inserted into other genres (like mystery) and takes the reader or viewer by surprise. When it’s the whole point of the piece, it loses a good deal of impact.

While I understand why Shane Hecht’s dialogue was redistributed, I don't understand why in the movie le Carré takes away some of Smiley’s actions and gives them to other characters, actually making his hero less proactive! That seems like an odd choice, and somewhat diminishes Smiley’s character.

All of my complaints, however, derive from direct comparisons to the book. Judged on its own merits, A Murder of Quality makes a handsome one-off in the PBS Mystery! mold (on which it originally aired in America), likely to satisfy most fans of British period detective shows. Director Gavin Miller (Foyle's War) creates a pleasing atmosphere and takes full advantage of his locations; whatever actual school stood in for Carne does a good job. There’s a first rate cast, too, including Joss Ackland as house Master Terrance Fielding (brother of one of Smiley’s wartime compatriots), Glenda Jackson as the former colleague who involves Smiley in the mystery, Ailsa Brimley, and a young Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as one of the boys who unwittingly holds a vital piece of the puzzle. Diane Fletcher does a fine job as a slightly defanged Shane Hecht, but I can’t help imagining how wonderfully Maggie Smith might have channeled the character from the novel (with all her lines intact, hopefully). Ah well. What might have been. Matthew Scurfield is also good as Smiley’s police contact, Inspector Rigby.

Solid cast and high production values aside, though, the finished product is undeniably lightweight. As a television drama, A Murder of Quality is even less essential Smiley than the book. It’s still worth watching for serious Smiley fans, however, just to see Denholm Elliott’s take on the character. I quite like it, but wish we could have seen him in something a bit more substantial—like, maybe, another crack at Call for the Dead. As a spy story, that one might have drawn more inevitable comparisons to the Guinness miniseries, but I have to wonder if there might have been plans to film it with Elliott after A Murder of Quality had the actor's health held up? (He died a year later.) As things stand, his sole contribution to the Smiley Files is limited to this rather insubstantial television movie.

The Region 1 A&E DVD offers an adequate, if grainy (as expected for UK TV productions of that era) presentation, and is thankfully uncut. (There’s some surprising female nudity, which I can’t imagine made it into the original PBS broadcast.) Other than some text features on the author and the actors, there are no special features to speak of.

The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)


Mark said...

Yes fondly remembered for Samantha Janus getting her kit off.

By the way it's Ailsa not as you have it here Aisla. A typo I'm sure.

As far as I'm aware there were no plans for Call For The Dead to be adapted after this, nor plans for The Secret Pilgrim. Though the prospect of James Fox returning to the role of Ned opposite Guinness is one to drool over. Still not as bad as the what might have been of The Hon Schoolboy

Tanner said...

Yes, a typo indeed. The result of adding that particular sentence right before posting at 2 in the morning because I thought Glenda Jackson deserved a mention. Thanks for spotting it! I'll fix it.

All of my fantasies about other Smiley adaptations are pure, unadulterated speculation, with no basis in facts that I know of... but I do find it hard to believe that nobody ever raised the prospect of a Guinness Secret Pilgrim.

Mark said...

Ah the 2am postings, I'm no stranger to those hehe.

First rate review/examination.

An adaptation of The Secret Pilgrim would have been fantastic, but the early 90s were a strange budget influenced time for the beeb. All the sumptuous adaptations of the previous decade suddenly dried up.

BTW, shameless plus but I occasionally post some spy fiction short stories of my own to my blog. I had them self published, but the book is no longer in print. If you're ever passing...

Bob said...

Tanner, I need your opinion. I am puzzled at the end of the book, when Smiley tells the murderer "Go now, in God's name go now".

Was Smiley just trying to send him to Rigby or to verify the person was the killer?

Overall, I enjoyed the book with Le Carre's vicious and amusing characterization of Shane.

Tanner said...

Hi Bob,

I should really refer back to the book, since it's been a while now since I read it, but I believe my impression was that Smiley was revolted by the murderer and his or her motives, and wanted him or her out of his sight, out of his life, when he said that. As mentioned elsewhere in that chapter, the thrill of the hunt, the part that actually interested Smiley, stimulated his intellect, was over. I think he found the actual unmasking of the killer distasteful, and felt the same way about the killer himself, and didn't want to spend anymore time dealing with that person.

Unknown said...

"Then Smiley put his hand on Fielding's arm and said: 'Go now, in God's name go now. There's very little time, for Adrian's sake go now,' and Ailsa Brimley whispered something he could not hear."

There's very little time...

Hi Tanner,
You said Smiley wanted Fielding out of his sight but isn't "There's very little time" a kind of a warning? "They are coming for you, Fielding. You have very little time. Run now!"
What do you think?

Tanner said...

Oh wow, these questions are really tough to answer when I haven't revisited that book in years and years! I've been re-reading all the Smileys this summer in anticipation of LEGACY OF SPIES, but I skipped that one since it's not essential to the overall story and I didn't have much time. (But I will go back to it after LEGACY; then maybe I'll have a better answer for you.) It seems like that could have been a warning reading what you say. Perhaps given for the sake of his brother, and not himself?