Aisling Walsh’s telefilm of the Priestley classic, first performed at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 1945, opens out the action somewhat. It begins with a shot of Eva Smith (Lucy Rundle) writing in her diary in a lonely room, followed by a shot of some wooden floorboards, and two or three establishing shots of the Birling factory with a 1912 car moving out of the gates. Through this brief sequence we are given a clear idea of the class-differences permeating the film between the haves and the have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited, that forms one of Priestley’s major themes.
Eva Smith does not appear in the Priestley text; in this version she is transformed into a hard-working girl who is not backward about coming forward. Hence she becomes an object of affection for factory-owner Arthur Birling (Ken Stott), his son Eric (Finn Cole), and Gerald Croft (Kyle Soller), the son of a rival factory-owner who is due to be affianced to Arthur’s daughter Sheila (Chloe Pirrie). Yet it soon becomes clear that all of them treat her as an object to be picked up and cast aside at will; it’s a tribute to Eva’s strength of character that she manages to sustain her integrity throughout, until she gives up the ghost and commits suicide.
At the end of the film the floorboards shot is explained, as Eva describes herself as “a crack in the floorboards” – a member of the underclass who is allowed to fall through in a crassly unequal society. No one, it seems, is willing to treat her on her own terms as a human being.
Walsh’s version also represents the Inspector (David Thewlis) as a mysterious figure moving slowly in the darkness towards the Birling residence, walking along a narrow slum in shadow, his bowler hat and long coat silhouetted, and visiting the dying Eva in hospital. We are left unsure as to whether he exists at all – especially at the end when he mysteriously disappears. But the question of his being isn’t really important: what matters more is his ability to uncover the truth about the Birling family through patient, insistent questioning. Thewlis’s expression remains impassive throughout – even if he despises the Birlings’ superciliousness, he will never let his emotions get the better of him.
In the central moments of the drama, as the truth about the family was gradually revealed, Walsh used repeated close-ups to focus on the protagonists’ changing expressions: Arthur’s look of quiet confidence was transformed into an expression of utter despair as he ran his hands through his hair; his wife Sheila (Miranda Richardson) tried her best to retain an impassive exterior, but the tell-tale movements of her cheek and neck-bones betrayed her emotions. Her stoicism in the face of the inevitable truth-revelation was contrasted with Eric’s expressions – at first he looked guiltily at everyone in full knowledge that he had been in some way responsible for Eva’s death, but as the drama unfolded he acquired a strength of character as he tried to come to terms with his past.
Brilliantly performed and suggestively directed; this was a thoroughly televisual version of the play that reminded us of the persistence of social inequalities today.
Review by l_rawjalaurence