Literature professor Ben Butley (Alan Bates) is a horror show of a human being. Possessed of singular wit that he uses almost exclusively to belittle his acquaintances, he’s at a tenuous place in his life. Although his position at a reputable school in his native England is basically solid, Ben has gotten into the bad habit of alienating colleagues and students with his incessant derision, and his love life is complicated—after his wife, Anne (Susan Engal), left him, Ben became romantically involved with his male assistant, Joey (Richard O’Callaghan). On what might be the worst day of his life, it all comes crashing down. Anne announces her intention to remarry, Joey reveals that he’s left Ben for swaggering Reg (Michael Byrne), and Ben’s elder colleague, Edna (Jessica Tandy), secures a publication deal for the book she’s spent 20 years writing—even though Ben is nowhere near completing his own book. In short, it’s time for karma to kick Ben Butley’s ass. And that’s the simple plot of this production from the American Film Theatre.
Based on Simon Gray’s 1971 play of the same name, Butley was the first feature film directed by Harold Pinter, the revered British playwright and stage director. Ironically, given Pinter’s reputation as a master of subtext, Butley comprises wall-t0-wall dialogue. Working with master cinematographer Gerry Fisher, Pinter does an excellent job of capturing performances via judicious picture editing, subtle camera moves, and thoughtful compositions, So even though Butley runs a bit long—120 minutes of Bates acting like a shit tests viewers’ patience—the picture, which is set almost entirely in one room, never feels claustrophobic. And while the storyline hits themes of academic competition, alcoholism, professional envy, self-loathing, and writers’ block, Butley isn’t some navel-gazing character study of a drama. Quite to the contrary, it’s meant to be high comedy, in the sense of elevated language and lofty ideas.
Some viewers may find the title character too cruel to be amusing, and, indeed, nearly all the “jokes” stem from Ben’s suffocating narcissism. For instance, when he learns of Edna’s success, Ben unfurls a rant: “She never did understand her role, which is not to finish an un-publishable book on Byron! Now the center cannot hold—Edna is unleashed upon the world!” Clearly, the source of Ben’s troubles is the same thing that makes him interesting as a dramatic subject, which is his delusion that the world revolves around him. Accordingly, the slow toppling of Ben’s fragile universe is a process of stripping away his overinflated ego. So in the same way that Ben might be a turnoff for some because he’s monstrous, the elimination of companionship and hope and joy from his life isn’t especially pleasurable to watch.
Butley, therefore, is more a clinical piece of business than a proper entertainment—but that doesn’t mean the film is without its distractions. Bates is terrific, even as he devolves from bickering with his lover to eviscerating a helpless coed, and the supporting cast provides sufficient resistance to make Bates’ attacks seem formidable. Mostly, however, the rewards of Butley are found in Gray’s dexterous wordplay. Other writers exploring similar terrain have created deeper and/or funnier material, but Gray stays balanced on a high wire from start to finish, almost completely avoiding the traps of melodrama, pretentiousness, and superficiality.