Written by John Le Carré, a master spy storyteller, and featuring a masterspy, George Smiley, you’d expect A Murder of Quality to be, well, a story about spying. In fact it’s a bare-bones whodunit with not a spook to be seen. Both Le Carré and Smiley are here essentially moonlighting.
The grisly murder of a woman at a private school is what sets it off, retired George being called in by old agency chum Ailsa Brimley to look into it as a favour for her. Strictly off the books, hush hush etc. This is a murder pure and simple. One for the police. Smiley is there as an outsider with no official involvement. Think Jessica Fletcher or any number of other amateur gumshoes.
It’s all set in a quaint 1950s Britain, of scarved vicars on bicycles, Sunday schools and cars with no synchromesh on first gear, a vastly reassuring landscape, though this sort of backdrop has been used so often in tales of gruesome murder – this victim was “bludgeoned” to death with a heavy piece of pipe – that you’ve got to wonder who’s still being reassured by scones and jam and old bookshops selling slightly foxed first editions.
Reassuring cast, though. Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, Glenda Jackson as Brimley, the Watson to Smiley’s Holmes, Joss Ackland as a pompous and over-friendly schoolmaster, Ronald Pickup as “a distinguished sexual athlete”, as local Inspector Rigby (Matthew Scurfield) puts it, Billie Whitelaw as babbling local vagrant “Mad Janie”, David Threlfall as the dead woman’s grief-stricken husband, Diane Fletcher as a hoity-toity bitch (she’s great at those – see the original British House of Cards) and… drum roll… Christian Bale as one of the pupils at the school. Four years out from Empire of the Sun, the film that introduced him, and nine years away from American Psycho making him, this is Bale solidly hacking his way through the undergrowth as a jobbing actor.
A vastly over-qualified cast, in fact, though you do need some quality when the finger of suspicion comes your character’s way – and it does tend to alight upon most of those listed above at one point or another.
Since spying is off the table, Le Carré settles instead for another of his pre-occupations, the small snobberies of the English caste system, where whose “people” you’re from matters and parvenus out themselves unwittingly by passing the port the wrong way around the dinner table. The retro setting helps, too, and the fact that the whole thing was filmed in and around Sherborne, Le Carré’s own public (ie expensive private) school, gives us an idea of the windmills he’s tilting at. For good measure, Le Carré adds in a bit of town v gown tension and high v low church friction to act as extra grist to his mill.
Denholm Elliott would be dead within a year but looks full of vigour as George Smiley. He was the third actor to have been offered the role, the imdb tells us, though you’ve always got to take these “offered the role” tags with a pinch of salt. A lot of actors are sent scripts, a lot of actors are sounded out, roles are often “offered” with having been actually offered. However, Alec Guinness had apparently said no, having already been George Smiley twice on TV and Anthony Hopkins (“star” of Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War, if you believe the imdb trivia page – he actually only had a supporting role) had also turned down the role, it’s said, because he wasn’t happy with the script. But given that Hopkins was prepping Hannibal Lecter at the time… you’ve got to wonder.
However, musings to one side, Elliott is a lovely and lively Smiley, muting the darker end of Guinness’s interpretation, turning up the fruitier, lighter end. He’s as owlish as Guinness, but a lot more charming, as an amateur detective with absolutely no jurisdiction or reason for being involved would have to be.
It’s the second of Le Carré’s Smiley books, and was written in 1962, presumably before the author had worked out where his strengths lay. It’s nicely, neatly done, directed unobtrusively by Gavin Millar and is almost entirely inconsequential, a piece of primetime schedule-filler.
In fact the way to go for Smiley fans is not the movies (TV or otherwise) at all. It’s the BBC radio dramas with Simon Russell Beale in the role of Smiley (his performance nods to Alec Guinness). In the radio version of A Murder of Quality in particular much more is made of the relationship between Smiley and the decent, clever local inspector. On screen here, in a canny performance, Matthew Scurfield does what he can to suggest that relationship but it’s mostly been excised from the screenplay, by Le Carré himself. A crime. And we know whodunit.
A Murder of Quality – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
The Complete Smiley BBC radio dramas – Get them at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021