Spy 100, #74: An Englishman Abroad

englishmanThe subdued, talky An Englishman Abroad (1983) isn’t the list’s most electrifying entry, but does serve as an amusing and unique curiosity. What happens to the spy once the betrayal is exposed and the spying career is done? A smart Alan Bennett script considers this question in examining the post-defection life of noted British traitor Guy Burgess (Alan Bates). When a touring British theater company visits Soviet-era Moscow, Burgess makes a brazenly drunken approach to Shakespearean actress Coral Browne (playing herself). What precisely Burgess is up to isn’t clear at first, but Browne is determined to find out, and visits Burgess in his dingy Moscow apartment, catching a glimpse of the modest fate that befell one of history’s most notorious double agents.

Based on Browne’s actual experience, An Englishman Abroad is an interesting little piece. The political subtext will probably have more impact to those steeped in the context of British life; even without that, though, it’s a striking, incisive oddity that slyly deglamorizes the intelligence game. Grubby production values actually contribute to the oppressive Soviet atmosphere, and emphasize Burgess’ sad, post-spying life, well after the thrill and idealism of his betrayal have faded. Not for a broad audience, perhaps, but it worked for me as a sad, quirky coda for the Spy 100 list, cleverly calling the game’s players on the folly of their exploits.

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