“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

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