Mark Cunliffe 🌹’s review published on Letterboxd:
Is it possible these days to make a period drama at the BBC without actor David Dawson? His oily, cold and haughty persona has permeated everything from The Hollow Crown to Banished, via Ripper Street and now, he appared in this latest adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic novel The Secret Agent as Vladimir, the First Secretary.
There have been several adaptations of The Secret Agent made down the years,from Hitchcock's 1936 film Sabotage, to a BBC adaptation from 1992 and a star studded 1996 movie with Bob Hoskins in the lead role. Twenty-Four years after last tackling the novel, the BBC staged another adaptation this month from the pen of Tony Marchant.
This three part mini-series boasts an impeccable cast; Toby Jones as our reluctant titular agent Verloc, Vicky McClure as his wife Winnie, Stephen Graham as the dogged Inspector Heat, Ian Hart as the nihilistic anarchist known as 'the Professor', Tom Goodman-Hill as the ambitious Asst. Commissioner Stone, and the aforementioned ubiquitous Dawson to name but a few. Unfortunately Marchant's adaptation is at times a dull, slow and bleak affair that seeks to iron out the wrinkles of Conrad's tonally complex novel, losing any of the intentional satirical bite in the process. This is because the BBC and Marchant have decided that The Secret Agent is 'a warning from history', and one whose prophetic nature must be dealt with in the most po-faced of manners.
Conrad was inspired to write his novel after hearing of a genuine attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, which was scuppered by the culprit inadvertently blowing himself up. Conrad described it thus; "a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought” Yet the BBC view this tale as one of an utterly topical significance detailing the moment where idealism gave birth to terrorism.
I love Toby Jones as a performer but his Verloc didn't really work for me. There was too much of an attempt to humanise him and to draw out pity for the torturous situation he finds himself in, meaning his shiftless vanity falls by the wayside. Also overlooked was his foreign status, with Jones offering the kind of whispering mockney that is employed in so many TV dramas these days, sending viewers to their remotes in the hope that turning the volume up could shed light on the proceedings. It doesn't.
The real star is the inimitable Vicky McClure, but Marchant does her no favours by losing sight of Winnie as the moral centre of the story; a woman who entered into a loveless marriage to provide for her vulnerable younger brother, Stevie. She may not be the titular character, but Winnie is the heart of this story - a fact that Marchant only seems to become truly aware of in the last episode and the final ten minutes of the episode that preceded it. It's true to say that it is a little disorientating to see the thoroughly modern McClure in the full corset and bonnet associated with proper period drama, but by that final episode she takes the story by force and makes it her own in the most quiet - literally - of ways. The novel manages the shift in focus from Verloc to Winnie quite beautifully following the disastrous mishap at Greenwich, this adaptation almost muffs it. Indeed it's perhaps only saved by the fact that the confrontation between Heat and Winnie affords us the opportunity to see a reunion between This Is England stars McClure and Stephen Graham - actors who have a working relationship that goes back over a decade, and it really shows.
Graham's Heat, complete with the actor's thick Liverpudlian accent, is somewhat reminiscent of that other Shane Meadows regular's donning of the starch wing collar and bowler, Paddy Considine's Mr Whicher from the ITV series of eponymous films. Like Considine he portrays an honest, dedicated seeker of truth and justice with a satisfying contemporary edge to his performance, and takes full advantage of Marchant's fleshing out of his character. Heat's dealings with the anarchist cell is opened out to offer up a somewhat diverting and physically orientated secondary storyline which sees him in dogged pursuance of the dangerous proto-suicide bomber, the Professor, superbly played by fellow scouser Ian Hart.
Overall though, this was a flawed journey into the heart of darkness enlivened only by some very fine performances.