16 May 2010 | classicalsteve
John Le Carre in Victorian London: Highly Absorbing Adaption of One of the First Suspense-Spy Thrillers Ever Written
You have to take into consideration that the book with which this was based was first published in 1907 and written by Joseph Conrad, author of "The Heart of Darkness". Conrad is not the kind of writer to spoon-feed "good" and "bad" characters. Simultaneously, the late 19th and early 20th century was not exactly an era teeming with spy thrillers. The closest comparable tales were those by Arthur Conan Doyle and his character Sherlock Holmes. (High-adventure books, such as Allan Quatermain, were all the rage.) And yet, this is a very literary take on the suspense-thriller genre that strangely transcends its era--almost eerily. But instead of the west vs east situation that became the perfect backdrop for spy thrillers of the late 20th century, this story centers around the very beginnings of socialist and anarchist groups that would eventually rise up and seize Russia and later China.
The film captures well the dark atmosphere of late 19th-century London on the east-side. Bob Hoskins in one of his finest performances is Mr Verloc, a plain person, who owns a plain shop inside a plain house in London of the 1880's. His one asset is that he has a beautiful wife, Winnie, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. And she takes care of a handsome brother who is feeble-minded enough to be on the verge of retardation, played by Christian Bale in one of his earliest films. (Of course, people didn't yet understand retardation at this time, and he is labeled a "degenerate".) They seem a happy family. But Verloc has some dark secrets. At first, we learn he hosts anarchist discussion groups at his home. But then we learn Verloc does much more than simply provide tea and cookies to would-be criminals and traitors to the government. He has a secret life in which continental agents hire him to make political statements through violent means. And Robin Williams (billed as Jeorge Spilvyn!) is the anarchist's anarchist who becomes the pivotal character.
Although it takes a few scenes to get moving, the story concerns one of Verloc's missions gone awry that has dire consequences to himself and his family. The form of the film is brilliant and is done in such a way as not to confuse the audience. We learn pieces of back-story in flashback, and it is not until movie's end that the entire picture emerges. Chief Constable, played by Jim Broadbent of "Topsy Turvy" fame, has put everything together, almost. And yet, the story keeps coming back to Robin Williams, the nameless "professor" who is the one crucial element.
Despite some of the negative press here, I think this is a brilliant film, subtle yet quite compelling from beginning to end. The performances are all top-notch, absolutely first-rate, from Hoskins to Gerard Depardieu as a self-centered lowlife often found at the tavern drinking with the "professor". Certainly, if you're looking for the usual 007 spy fair, you may have to look elsewhere. But if you're in the mood for something different and cerebral, take a chance on "The Secret Agent".