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Friday, July 4, 2014

THE SECRET AGENT (1996)

British playwright Christopher Hampton added director to his usual writing credit on this Joseph Conrad adaptation, his second shot as hyphenate. A fascinating Dostoevsky-like tale of foreign born or influenced anarchists in 1880s London, the story had been brilliantly modernized by Hitchcock for the jittery 1930s as SABOTAGE/’36 (aka THE WOMAN ALONE).* But while Hampton is more faithful to Conrad, his film, in spite of a generally excellent cast, compelling action and strong period detail, is much less successful. As director, Hampton seems unable (unwilling?) to vary the pace or take advantage of the suspense built into the premise, the film never gets into gear. The opening is promising with Bob Hoskins hosting a small group of socialist malcontents, agitators, Fabians & anarchists in his flat while his wife, an uncomfortable Patricia Arquette, and her mentally damaged kid brother (Christian Bale), help her Mom pack up to move. Surprisingly, for those who know the Hitchcock pic, it’s not an especially unhappy household, but as Hoskins finds himself pulled in various directions by officials digging for explosive info; foreign embassy types pressing for that big bang against British confidence; and underground bomb-makers dreaming of self-destruction (a stunning little perf from Robin Williams); he starts to crack, clinging to the younger wife he may have completely misread. Obviously, you can’t entirely miss the mark with this level of material, the situation literally detonates with drama. But Hampton might as well be helming underwater, accompanied by the repetitive music patterns of Philip Glass on the soundtrack.

DOUBLE-BILL: *There’s always been confusion on the Hitchcock pic since he used the title SECRET AGENT on his first film of 1936 which was taken from Somerset Maugham’s ‘Ashenden.’ His Conrad adaptation, also 1936, came out in Britain as SABOTAGE and then was retitled THE WOMAN ALONE for Stateside audiences. BEWARE of Public Domain issues on this one; stick to the fine Criterion DVD.

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