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Likable traitors in the spy world

BBC America gives the Cambridge quartet of double agents a more exciting life than it probably was.

October 25, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

The British love their spies, even the spies who spy against them, perhaps because it reminds them of the days when they were a nation -- an empire! -- worth spying against.

There is barely a hint of opprobrium in "Cambridge Spies," an engaging if sometimes less than believable five-part series beginning tonight on BBC America, which tells, not for the first time, the story of the Fab Four of 20th century double-agency: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, played respectively by Toby Stephens, Tom Hollander, Rupert Penry-Jones and Samuel West. Between them, they have inspired what amounts to an entire subgenre of national drama, film and fiction, including Alan Bennett's "A Question of Attribution" and "An Englishman Abroad"; Julian Mitchell's "Another Country"; and John LeCarre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Do not look here for historical instruction: "Certain events and characters have been created or changed for dramatic effect," reads a disclaimer at the start of every episode. Much of this invention is in the service of making its four heroes, for such they are, likable; and much is in the service of making the film exciting, in a movie sort of way. (Midnight adventures in Vienna! Sex in Seville! Escape to Southampton!) Still, it hits the major historical points and, if not entirely scrupulous as to the facts, follows the arc of the adventure, from 1934, when the quartet met at Cambridge, through the years of their most productive spyhood as they rose in the ranks of the media, the Foreign Office and secret service, to 1951, when it all began to unravel.

It is allowable in art to make "heroes" of people who do bad things -- otherwise no "Macbeth," no "Bonnie and Clyde," no "Don Juan" or "Don Giovanni." And these particular traitors -- to their class, if nothing else -- are easier to like than some, being motivated not by the familiar modern hard terms (money, sex, power) but a social ideal. Their hatred of the English class system is inextricable from their love of England. And, of course, it all meant something different back then: "To fight fascism you have to be a communist," says Philby to Maclean as they cross the quadrangle on their way to a date with destiny. "Anything else is appeasement."

We learn that spying can be tough on relationships. ("Happiness is so unreliable," says Blunt. "It's the worst thing that can happen to an agent.") That it's tiring living a lie. And that the work itself isn't all that interesting: It seems to consist mostly of putting papers into bags and putting bags into cans. Occasionally you might sit down in a cafe or on a park bench with some Boris Badenov type who tells you that whatever you're asking is impossible, Moscow doesn't see it that way. There are no cool gadgets, no hot cars. In one scene, secret documents are rolled up and wrapped in a condom, to be placed in a toilet tank, but it's just a regular condom. It doesn't shoot tear gas or turn into a helicopter.

Screenwriter Peter Moffat doesn't go particularly deep, and his characters have a bad habit of making speeches at each other -- "We have to start fighting for the future," declares Philby, "and the fight starts now." But when he lets them relax, the heart of the story begins to beat, which has less to do with geopolitics or revolution than with camaraderie -- they are as inseparable as the cast of "Friends" -- and commitment.

Philby is the most famous of the four, because he rose the highest and served the longest -- when he died, the Russians put him on a stamp -- but he remained enigmatic until the end, and his character is not entirely solved by either Moffat or Stephens, who plays him with an almost continually furrowed brow. Burgess and Blunt are the juiciest roles. West's Blunt is a kind of Noel Coward with heart, while Hollander is terrific as the reckless and brilliant Burgess, an alcoholic wit with a gift for life and a flair for throwing it away; without him there might have been no movie worth watching. Maclean is, in Marxist terms, the Zeppo of the group: a good-looking, romantic lead, but dull by comparison. His main job here is to be sad.

Also notable are Anthony Andrews, of "Brideshead Revisited," as King George VI; James Fox (who played Blunt in a 1992 TV version of "A Question of Attribution") as Lord Halifax; Romanian actor Marcel Iures as the spies' contact and mentor, Otto; and Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth.

If not exactly suspenseful, the series does generate a good deal of tension. It's impossible, the way this game is arranged, not to fret and root for Philby & Co. Though the threads get lost here and there over its several hours, and it's impossible to remember or care about the particulars of who stole which secret when, we are finally carried to a tense and moving conclusion, as Burgess and Maclean sail into exile. "There!" cries Burgess as the sun comes up on the white cliffs of Dover. "England. England."

It's a handsome production, and does a very good job of making the past feel authentically present. There are real Cambridge locations and a collection of the most beautiful overcoats seen on the screen in quite some time. The film is admirably relaxed about homosexuality -- Burgess and Blunt were both gay. There are more men naked in it than women.


'Cambridge Spies'

Where: BBC America

When: 7 p.m. Saturdays, premiering tonight

Toby Stephens...Kim Philby

Samuel West...Anthony Blunt

Tom Hollander...Guy Burgess

Rupert Penry-Jones...Donald Maclean

Executive producers, Laura Mackie, Gareth Neame, Sally Woodward Gentle, David Bernath. Writer, Peter Moffat. Director Tim Fywell.

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