Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Insurance Man (1986)

In the war torn Prague of 1945, Franz discusses with his doctor his X rays results which show a mass on/around his lungs. The doctor asks him to discuss his working life and Franz tells the tale of a time before the Great War, when he was a young dye worker dismissed from his job because of a suspicious scaly rash. Determined to find out the truth of his industrial injury and gain recompense, Franz subsequently found himself caught up in the nightmarish bureaucracy and double speak of an insurance company, one of whose employees was a young Jewish man called Franz Kafka.

Kafka had long been a favourite of Alan Bennett's and the Yorkshire playwright indulged in some suitably Kafka like paranoia in his otherwise Ealing style wartime comedy A Private Function in 1984, before turning his attention two year later to two pieces based on Kafka; his comic stage play Kafka's Dick and this Screen Two film, The Insurance Man.

But Franz Kafka isn't the central focus of The Insurance Man, that falls to his poor namesake Franz (played by Ronald Hines here in the flashbacks that form the majority of the action, whilst his older self in the scenes that top and tail the film is played by Trevor Peacock) who is trapped in an increasingly frustrating and labyrinthine Kafkaesque nightmare. Like Alice sent further and further down the rabbit hole, Franz the worker is sent back and forth, up and down endless corridors and eternal spiral staircases as he's passed from pillar to post by the abrupt and officious bureaucratic functionaries. He meets similar victims along the way, albeit ones now so advanced on their quest for justice and compensation that they are now lost souls in a sea of red tape. These  bureaucratic and 'civilian' characters are wonderfully brought to life by a plethora of incredible character actors including Jim Broadbent, Hugh Fraser, Sam Kelly, Vivien Pickles, Tony Haygarth, Rosemary Martin, Charlotte Coleman, Benjamin Whitrow and Geoffrey Palmer.

As Kafka himself is Daniel Day-Lewis. Though he isn't really on screen all that much, the future star really leaves an impression and the character himself is of course integral, in a tragically ironic deeply Kafkaesque manner; sensitive to Franz's plight, he arranges for the young man to work at a relation's asbestos factory which is of course the reason behind the older Franz's ill health. 

The Insurance Man isn't the most successful of Bennett's plays - perhaps because it's a little too on the nose in terms of its anger when Bennett's archetypal work always seems to cushion its depth and its bite within cosy humdrum surroundings - but it is still a darkly enjoyable ride helped immeasurably by director Richard Eyre's fittingly theatrical and Expressionist style; the cinematography, the set design and lighting create a uniquely disturbing nightmarish world which brings to life the sense of unnerving paranoia in Bennett's script.

The Insurance Man is available on the DVD release Alan Bennett at the BBC, but it is also available to view on YouTube.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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