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November 21, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

There's hardly any electricity to match the unfolding of a clockwork-smooth British thriller, and "Defense of the Realm" is one of the most electrifying.

Terrifying in its political "what ifs," keenly intelligent, played by one of those dream British casts and full of scenes that leave us limp from controlled tension, it's a beautiful job all around. (It opens today at the Beverly Cineplex, Goldwyn Pavilion, Esquire, and Town & Country.)

It's set in and around London's "Street of Shame," the journalists' only half-joking nickname for its publishing hub, Fleet Street, and director David Drury has the daily buzz, the cross-currents, the in-jokes and the pall of cigarette smoke that permeate a metropolitan daily down pat.

Bright but dead-ended reporter Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) and his friend and sometimes mentor Victor Bayliss (Denholm Elliott), the paper's respected senior reporter, become involved at opposite ends of a political uproar. It's touched off by an anonymous tip suggesting that a Liberal M.P., Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen), has close KGB connections, with overtones of a sexual scandal.

In spite of the older man's plea to his editors for caution and more investigation, they, and Mullen in particular, pursue it avidly, with disastrous personal results for Markham.

It's a plot as tightly knit as an Aran Island sweater and about as intricate. A nice thing about "Defense of the Realm" is its reliance on our intelligence; it not only makes us work alongside its heroes, but assumes flatteringly that we're up to the job. We follow the legwork, the hunches, the tips and just plain grueling effort that results in Watergate-like exposes, or international political bombshells--with the tension cranked to the utmost and danger down every dark hallway. And that's the last tip-off you'll get from this Shameful Street.

There are bits of fine-tuning that British audiences might understand almost intuitively, which seep in to us only in hindsight. Class distinctions that set a Nick Mullen light years away from Sir Victor Kingsbrook (Fulton MacKay), his paper's white-mustachioed owner, and political ones that set the tone of Kingsbrook's paper. They're a little something for us to mull over afterward--along with the film's last, lingering life-and-death question.

Byrne, at last out from under Christopher Columbus' floppy velvet tam (he was the star of that high-flown and misguided miniseries), emerges as a cracklingly fine actor, and in combination with Greta Scacchi, Markham's assistant, as a first-rate romantic hero, for what romance there is. There cannot be enough of Denholm Elliott's rueful, world-weary intelligence. Scotland's Bill Paterson can also be seen, prodding his staff on to bigger and more lurid headlines. Ah, the newspaper biz.

Martin Stellman did the brilliantly succinct yet revealing screenplay, the exceptionally rich and evocative photography and production design were by Roger Deakins and Roger Murray-Leach, respectively, and Robin Douet and Lynda Myles were its producers. And it is part of the film's stamp of quality that its executive producer was David Puttnam. Ah, the imprimatur biz.

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