Though hardly a household name in the United States (his scripts for The Madness of King George
, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1995, and 2006's The History Boys
are probably his best-known works in America), playwright-screenwriter Alan Bennett has had a long and distinguished career in his native England. The reasons for that are evident throughout the Alan Bennett Collection
, a four-disc set containing 11 works (including one documentary) produced between the early 1970s and mid-'90s and ranging in length from about 40 to 75 minutes. Bennett is an erudite, articulate writer. His work contains few jokes, but is often satirical and very witty; there's not much action (indeed, there's so little happening in some of these pieces that Masterpiece Theatre
seems positively rousing in comparison), as he establishes his characters with crackling dialogue and situation, helped along by outstanding performances by Alan Bates, James Fox, Daniel Day-Lewis, Coral Browne, Harry Markham, Patricia Routledge, and others, along with fine directors like Stephen Frears and John Schlesinger. Given Bennett's background in the theater, some of the films are a bit stagy, and the production values vary considerably. But while fans of, say, Jersey Shore
may not be interested, those in search of genuine depth, not to mention Anglophiles who revel in quintessentially British entertainment, will find much to admire.
Among the more renowned works is 1983's An Englishman Abroad, based on actor Browne's account of her meeting in Moscow with the notorious Guy Burgess (Bates), who defected to the USSR after being caught spying for the Russians in the '50s. Bennett, who supplies new introductions for each film, aptly describes this meeting between "the elegant actress [Browne plays herself] and the seedy exile" as both funny and sad; Burgess comes off as a drunken, fairly pathetic character, a self-described "tremendous villain" who knows he can never go home again. Another of the so-called "Cambridge spies," Sir Anthony Blunt (Fox), who was the "keeper of the Queen's pictures" and also confessed to spying for the Soviets, is the subject of A Question of Attribution, while The Insurance Man stars Day-Lewis as Franz Kafka in a surreal fantasy about a nightmarish bureaucracy that can only be described as Kafkaesque. These portraits are brilliant, but so are the ones about more ordinary folks, like Sunset Across the Bay, a meditation on aging in which a couple moves from Leeds (Bennett's hometown) to the seashore, only to find that retirement isn't quite what they'd hoped for, and A Woman of No Importance, a 48-minute monologue with Routledge as the title character (the very idea of this piece--one woman talking for nearly an hour, mostly about trivial matters--sounds impossibly boring, but in fact it's remarkably poignant). Bonus features include an extended interview with Bennett. --Sam Graham