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<em>An Inspector Calls</em>: False innocence

(BBC/Drama Republic)

Television

An Inspector Calls: False innocence

Film makes a wealthy family the unwitting villains

In 1912, the Birling family of England seems to have it all. In their beautiful home, with servants rushing during a lavish dinner, Arthur and Sybil Birling celebrate daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald, son of another wealthy family. Gerald is helping run his father’s factory.

Mrs. Birling assures her daughter that she is “securing her future” with this excellent match. In the drawing room after dinner, Mr. Birling is equally confident. “You’re getting married at the best time possible,” he informs his prospective son-in-law. 

“What about a war?” asks youngest son Eric.  

“There’s not going to be a war,” his father insists.

The Birlings’ bold confidence crashes with a police detective’s unexpected visit. Inspector Goole’s questions cannot wait until the morning. A young lady named Eva Smith has killed herself, and her diary’s accounts have given the policeman suspicions.

Mr. Birling has cloudy recollections of the victim that sharpen when the inspector investigates further. The detective next grills daughter Sheila, who feels horrible when she realizes her callous complaints cost Eva her job. Worse yet, Gerald and Eric have both had extramarital relationships with Eva: She was pregnant when she died.

Inspector Goole seems to know each Birling’s selfishness contributed to Eva’s descent into desperation and poverty. He digs deeper and deeper, with the family’s guilt becoming clearer and clearer. Then, as suddenly as he arrived, Goole leaves the Birlings to ponder their past sins and next steps.

Now available on Amazon Prime and elsewhere, this 2015 adaptation of An Inspector Calls, a play by J.B. Priestley, brings to mind other examinations of the wickedness of man, such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Priestley holds out no hope for the older generation of wealthy industrialists: They didn’t see the wars coming, didn’t look beyond their own enrichment and selfishness, and were not generous toward the downtrodden. 

When it seems they may be free from charges and potential disgrace, Mr. and Mrs. Birling celebrate: Wine flows as they quickly dispatch their guilt. But Eric and Sheila show genuine remorse, and the viewer may hold out hope for changes of heart and behavior.

The play An Inspector Calls premiered in the Soviet Union in 1945, near the end of World War II. Priestley hoped socialism would answer the world’s problems. The movie accurately depicts mankind’s depraved condition but cannot prescribe a remedy that works. 

While mostly family-friendly, the film does broadly hint at the sexual nature of Eva’s relationships, and characters take God’s name in vain several times.