"A Question of Attribution" may be a question of one Blunt too many.
"Masterpiece Theatre" opens its 1992-93 season with this intriguing but static account of Sir Anthony Blunt, the haughty intellectual who became Queen Elizabeth II's art curator--and even a member of the royal household--while secretly being the "fourth man" in the notorious Burgess-MacLean-Philby spy ring that served the Soviet Union before and during World War II.
With James Fox very good as Blunt, the 90-minute production airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15 and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.
Alan Bennett wrote this BBC teleplay as a companion to "An Englishman Abroad," his much-superior work drawn from actress Coral Browne's chance encounter in Moscow with Blunt's fellow spy and reported lover, Guy Burgess.
A more apt comparison, though, is with Ian Richardson's equally measured but more menacing Blunt in a 1987 British television depiction, repeated from time to time on the Arts & Entertainment cable network. Titled "Blunt," that version portrayed the spy's fascinatingly complex relationship with Burgess and the steps that a worried Blunt took to insulate himself from possible harm after Burgess defected to the Soviet Union.
Yet the layers of treachery are blurred in "A Question of Attribution." It begins at a time when Blunt's past Soviet connection is already known to the British government, which is using the threat of exposure as leverage to wring from him the identities of other collaborators--"the names behind the names"--as he continues to perform his duties for the Queen as if nothing were amiss. The latest government operative assigned to grill the cagey Blunt is a disarmingly amiable chap named Chubb (David Calder), who appears to believe that the best way to reach his subject is through his art.
His hair at times poufed out over his ears like a pair of gray wings, Fox's formidable Blunt is illusive and condescending, a silken snob so contemptuous of the public that he arrogantly evicts visitors from a gallery room because their chatter annoys him.
Bennett makes ample allegorical use of painting frauds and forgeries, and Blunt himself sniffs about his political duality: "As a fake, I shall, of course, excite more interest than the genuine article."
However interesting this may be, it fails to compensate for the story's frequent convolution--American viewers may have a problem understanding just what's up--and inertia. Intended as a metaphorical centerpiece, for example, a scene showing Blunt bumping into and chatting with the Queen (Prunella Scales) in the palace becomes the excruciating conversation from hell, running on and on while making you wonder why director John Schlessinger doesn't mercifully intervene.
A disgraced Blunt died in 1983. About midway through its journey, "A Question of Attribution" dies on the screen.