The BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015), based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, , announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.
As the Inspector interviews each family member, the investigation progresses, unfolding secrets and lies. The family’s past actions are brutally exposed. Inspector Goole lays bare the family members’ lack of awareness of the impact their callous behavior has had on Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other,” the Inspector admonishes.
In one-to-one interrogations with the husband, wife, daughter, fiance, and son, Inspector Goole dissects the family’s hypocrisy, self-delusion, and cowardice. Arthur’s wife (the extraordinary Miranda Richardson) thinks the worst fate is a loss in social standing, unconcerned with the death of Eva Smith. Their daughter is also complicit. The fiance has unclean hands as well. The mother and son combine to finally push Eva over the edge. In addressing each of the family’s self-absorbed, self-protecting attitudes and behavior, Inspector Goole addresses how deeply damaging their actions are and what constitutes human decency.
An Inspector Calls is perhaps most provocative for its sharp rebuke of the family-centered, but highly insular and exclusionary views of Arthur and his wife, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families at all cost, regardless of consequences to others. One may never know how actions may affect another, perhaps even throughout another’s lifetime, and so one must be aware and be kind. No actions are without consequences.
The plot is simply superb, tightly woven, and relentless in ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The lessons ring as true today as they did in 1912. David Thewlis performance is so understated that the effect is even more spellbinding.
An Inspector Calls is a clarion blast, warning human beings to care for those beyond their own inner circle, demonstrating a more inclusive attitude and empathy for those with less good fortune. The play is about identity and tribe–nothing will ever be the same.
Note: Available on Amazon Prime.