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Movie Review

'Secret Agent' Operates at High Intensity

November 08, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' " from Christopher Hampton is such a dense, faithful and absorbing adaptation of the great writer's 1907 novel about an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that you must be prepared to pay exceedingly close attention to it or risk losing your way.

A study in character and fate rather than an exercise in suspense, it has a cast as unusual as the film itself, headed by Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams (billed coyly as George Spelvin) and Christian Bale. It has the same authentic sense of period as Hampton's "Carrington."

We're plunged into a narrow Soho side street on a dark night in 1886. Inside a notably discreet and spacious porn shop, its burly proprietor, Verloc (Hoskins), is conducting a meeting of anarchists as his mother-in-law (Elizabeth Spriggs) is preparing to move from the family living quarters upstairs; a stagecoach awaits her outside.

Although we learn that she no longer wishes to impose upon her kindly son-in-law--and also finds it awkward to invite anyone in for tea, considering the nature of what the shop sells--we never understand why she's moving in the dead of night. But don't let this odd beginning distract you.

For such an ordinary-seeming man, Verloc is leading a complicated life, secretly working as an agent for the Russian Embassy but also informing the London police. Verloc adores his pretty and much younger wife, Winnie (Arquette), who has married him out of a need for security for herself and especially her beloved, slightly retarded brother Stevie (Bale).

You have the feeling that despite the husband's lines of work, life is pretty comfortable for the Verlocs, with Winnie proving to be a concerned and affectionate wife. Then the Russian Embassy's new First Secretary (Eddie Izzard, deliciously nasty), a man of surpassing arrogance, has a new assignment for Verloc, at once stupid and potentially disastrous. Outraged that Britain has become such a haven for radicals, he symbolizes the kind of elitist that the Russian Revolution would overthrow 30 years later.

"The Secret Agent" becomes a study of how individuals cope with calamity as they struggle against fate. Why Verloc would ever involve his easily obedient but scarcely reliable brother-in-law defies comprehension, and it leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that Verloc really is not very bright. At the same time, Winnie proves to be a tiger in a crisis but also fatally naive. Depardieu's Ossipon is key among Verloc's anarchist friends--a man clearly attracted to Winnie--and Williams' Professor, an explosives supplier, is a truly scary proto-fascist.

Hampton knows how to get performances out of his cast, with Hoskins and Arquette excelling in the lead roles as individuals far more vulnerable than either could probably ever realize. Since "The Secret Agent" is a work in which irony constantly compounds irony, you wish that Hampton had considered taking a step back, slowing down a bit and letting it all sink in. As it is, "The Secret Agent" is the kind of film that demands you to grab on to it and hold on for dear life.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence. Times guidelines: Too intense and complicated for children and has brutal scenes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" '

Bob Hoskins: Verloc

Patricia Arquette: Winnie

Gerard Depardieu: Ossipon

George Spelvin (Robin Williams): Professor

Christian Bale: Stevie

A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation of a Heyman/Hoskins production in association with Capitol Films. Writer-director Christopher Hampton. Producer Norma Heyman. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. Editor George Akers. Costumes Cosprop, London, and Angels & Bermans. Music Philip Glass. Production designer Caroline Amies. Art director Frank Walsh. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega, (310) 777-FILM, No. 172; AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 553-8900; and NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099.

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