Gerard DepardieuJim BroadbentChristian BaleEddie Izzard
The Secret Agent
Medium: film
Year: 1996
Director: Christopher Hampton
Writer: Christopher Hampton, Joseph Conrad
Country: UK
Actor: Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu, Jim Broadbent, Christian Bale, Roger Hammond, Eddie Izzard, Ralph Nossek, Neville Phillips, Elizabeth Spriggs, Peter Vaughan, Julian Wadham, Robin Williams
Format: 95 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 10 April 2013
It's a more faithful adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel than Hitchcock's 1936 adaptation, Sabotage. It's has an excellent cast. It's written and directed by Christopher Hampton, who's a playwright and an Oscar-winner for his script for Dangerous Liasons.
However it's also plodding and has a plot hole so bad that for me it derailed the entire movie. It fixes the problems of Hitchcock's version, only to introduce new ones. They're both gravely flawed, but in opposite ways.
What's good about this is its fidelity and the quality of the performances. They're hardly flashy, but you never doubt them for a moment and the film feels emotionally true. The big Hoskins-Arquette scene at the end in particular is horribly convincing in how it turns Hoskins into a monster while at the same time showing us that he's still exactly the same little bank manager we've been watching throughout. (He's actually an anarchist double agent and a Soho porn peddler, but just look at the guy. He's a born bank manager, down to his bowler hat.) The psychological truth never slips for a moment and I felt the scene triumphed at everything that Homolka and Sidney hadn't managed in 1936.
Besides, look at that cast. You'd expect a British period film directed by Christopher Hampton to have a strong cast, but even so it's eye-catching. 1. Bob Hoskins, who's also the executive producer and at one stage had been going to direct too. 2. Gerard Depardieu, whose role in the finale will take you by surprise if you only know the Hitchcock version. 3. Jim Broadbent, buried under a moustache and portraying an unpleasant, self-serving chief inspector. 4. Christian Bale, a decade pre-Batman and playing Arquette's simpleton brother. 5. Brief appearances for Elizabeth Spriggs and Peter Vaughn. 6. Eddie Izzard at the start of his movie career. This is an intriguing cast, eclectic as well as strong. Of course there's Arquette too, but she's acceptable and nowhere near the level of the worst American actresses in British films (Uma Thurman, Andie McDowell).
There's even Robin Williams! He goes uncredited, but it's a key role. He's the Professor, who in the original Conrad was idolised by the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. It's excellent casting, actually. It took me a moment to work out who I was looking at, since Robin Williams isn't a name you'd expect in that cast list, but he has his own offbeat line on being unnerving and peculiar. I liked his Professor a lot.
All that's good. Unfortunately the film has, for me, a near-terminal problem. In fairness, I should acknowledge that most reviewers I've seen don't seem to care about it... but I do.
My question is this. If you were planning a terrorist act in the middle of London, would you entrust the most important part of the job to a simpleton? He screws up. Boom. Whoops. Shouldn't have been hard to predict, surely? Obvious consequence: disaster. The Hitchcock film solves this problem by trapping Homolka where he can't get away, but the question doesn't seem to have occurred to Hampton. Our terrorist just stands there like a pudding and watches the halfwit walk off.
For me, this broke the film. After that, Hoskins might be acting his little heart out, but I'm just laughing at him (and the screenwriter). I managed to keep watching, with some effort, and was able to acknowledge that I was being rewarded with some good performances... but really. I mean, come on. What a plonker. Had they chosen to play this for laughs (which absolutely isn't the case), I'd still be having trouble breathing even now. Unfortunately as it was, I was instead having trouble not turning off the movie.
I like the Hoskins-Arquette relationship. Look at them. Look at the age difference and the fact that he's got the sex appeal of toenail clippings. Look at their sex life and the way it's Arquette (!) who'll be saying things like "Not tired of me yet?" (That was an extraordinary line, I thought.) She obviously only married Hoskins because he'd look after her idiot brother, which is made so clear that I was mildly irritated with Arquette's character at the end when she says so out loud. A better actress could have done more with that moment.
Early on, the film felt as if it was taking a left-wing viewpoint, even if soon the characters and the plot take over. I liked that viewpoint, by the way. Viewpoints are good, especially when they're in tune with the ostensible goals and ideals of the story's flawed characters. Anyway, the first thing we see is a title card explaining that, "In the 1880s (unlike today) London was a haven for political refugees of all nationalities." Love the parenthetic addition there. Meanwhile the revolutionaries in Hoskins's flat were always going to be expressing forceful opinions, but even so Hampton gives them juicy dialogue ("economic cannibals who drink the blood and eat the flesh of the people"), while even Arquette's otherwise apolitical character is capable of observations like, "The police are there so that them as have nothing can't take nothing away from them as have a lot."
(Broadbent's take on Chief Inspector Heat feels a little as if it's backing this up, by the way.)
This is one of those well-made but dreary British films, full of admirable performances and impeccable period reconstructions. It's earnest. It believes in itself and in its source material, which is good. The Hitchcock version was more entertaining, needless to say, but I might still have quite liked this take if it hadn't been for that unanswered question in the middle. Normal plot holes I can handle. I'm a Doctor Who fan. I know what happens in The Android Invasion. This however, for me, is as if Hampton didn't merely blow off his foot with a shotgun, but went on to rub salt in the stump and go for a ten-mile run on it. Most people didn't have this specific reaction of mine, but I get the impression that all this means was that most people had other reasons for not particularly liking this movie.
"The absence of a system of rational repression in this country is a scandal."