As has been noted this new adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is topical and almost prescient, telling as it does of a cell of anarchists headed by Soho smut peddler and double agent Adolph Verloc, tasked by his Russian embassy paymaster to take things onto a new level and provoke his cell into carrying out a fatal bombing. If not, his paymaster tells him, he will blow his cover, surely resulting in every anarchist in Europe coming after him. Verloc decides he has no choice – only ever an informant he is now faced with being a terrorist to save his own skin.
First Verloc must convince his small band of revolutionary chums to take the step up from mere ideological discussion to action, but only one them – explosives expert The Professor – is up for the next level.
Standing in the wings is Verloc’s kindly wife Winnie (Vicky McClure), her mentally handicapped brother Stevie, and he sister, who turn a blind eye to Verloc’s little gatherings and dismisses them as ‘just men saying silly things’ (isn’t that how most bad things in the world start?). Also on the scene is Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham, appearing in the same production as Vicky McClure since the This Is England saga), who’s aware of the presence of the cell – and indeed Verloc’s own double agent status – but doubts its intent or legitimacy. He thinks its members are crackpots until he confronts The Professor and sees his explosive suicide vest. He now knows that they mean business.
The Secret Agent depicts a pre-World War I world where suspicions are building across the continent; a tinder box that is ripe for exploitation and where whispers in the wind suddenly turn into deeds. Sound familiar?
The best scenes are when Heat is present, either interacting with Verloc or The Professor (the underrated Ian Hart on top form), but the full horrors of what Verloc is up to and to what lengths he will go to save his skin are present in shocking scenes of radicalisation, when he takes his mentally ‘deficient’ brother-in-law out and about in order to implicate him in his plan, snarling through gritted teeth about what it is to be caged and ruled by masters.
It’s chilling stuff.
It’s not rip-snorting, pacy drama like a Line Of Duty (this was actually made by World Productions, the same company behind Line Of Duty) or a Night Manager (which recently defined this 9pm, Sunday-night drama slot). No, The Secret Agent is a slow-developing story, suffused with simmering tension and populated by morally ambiguous characters, all who, physically, are somehow, well, not a smooth Tom Hiddleston type: they’re brow-beaten and furrowed of brow, shambling around town (London, mournfully realised) with rage and anger never far away from their surface. Even Heat – the copper – isn’t a paragon of shining goodness. He’s gritty and is an enforcer, never mincing his words and culturally intolerant. In some ways you could argue that, certainly when it comes to The Professor, Heat actually helps to push him over the edge. The heavy-handed establishment pushing a disenfranchised – and insane and dangerous member of society – into a corner until he lashes out. And then there’s Verloc, used and exploited by ruthless paymasters, full of fear and absolutely willing to delegate his deadly task.
Again, sound familiar?
As ever though it’s Toby Jones who steals the show. He’s always been so interesting to look at, but here he shuffles around the city in an almost expressionless state, rarely conveying emotion – whether it’s in his shop, around the family dinner table or conducting business with fellow anarchists of the most serious and sensitive nature.
Let’s see if Heat can catch up with them and foil the plot to blow up the Greenwich Conservatory, or if Verloc can go through with it all. If you’ve read Conrad’s original, this isn’t going to end well.