Guy Pearce & Damian Lewis Pack A Punch In The MGM+ Espionage Thriller

Mar 13, 2023

You should never talk about politics, religion, or sex in polite company, advised Emily Post in “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.” Released in 1922, the guide by the American author and socialite sought to give readers the tools to navigate any social situation. The upper echelon of British society has its own rules and customs, and MGM+’s new six-part espionage limited series “A Spy Among Friends” is as much about what happens when someone steps outside of class hierarchy as it is about Cold War subterfuge. The infamous Cambridge Spies—who met at the prestigious academic institution in the 1930s—have been referenced many times, including “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “From Russia with Love,” and “The Hour.” This adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s non-fiction best seller of the same name delivers an intimate portrait of betrayal.
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No topic is considered off-limits in the backrooms of elite gentleman’s clubs, rustic safe houses, and the offices of the Special Intelligence Elite (SIS aka MI6). Bawdy limericks are performed nearly in the same breath as some operational matters, and a code of honor is an effective security measure. Unfortunately, this isn’t strictly true, and rule-breakers will always find a way to disrupt even the system they are meant to uphold. Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) is one such figure, charming his way into any confidence and setting a new standard for misdirection and distraction.
Spy BFFs (or rather, old chums) Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Philby are at the heart of the decades-spanning tale of intrigue that follows the duo down a rabbit hole of suspicion. Philby is believed to be another double agent spilling high-level secrets to the KGB, so those closest to him are now caught in the suspicion crosshairs. Depending on your knowledge of this embarrassing chapter for the British intelligence services, the tension levels of how this story plays out will vary. We will refrain from spoiling the particulars of who is and isn’t a double agent, as ambiguity is vital to the tension-building. 
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Primarily set in 1963, the Cold War entered a new phase after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Paranoia is rife from the get-go, and Philby has fled to the USSR in an act that tears another hole in a battered covert department. It has been over a decade since the first two Cambridge Spies were discovered, and the stain of paranoia left by Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess is still visible. It is no wonder that this real-life story remains fascinating as it plays out like a novel—in part because it inspired so many spy writers. The fraught political landscape and a weakened Britain caught between attempting to assert its power while cultivating the “special relationship” with the US are additional factors impacting the response.
Anchoring the investigation is MI5 agent Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose gender immediately sets her apart from the old boys club at SIS. Not only that, but she has a regional accent that Elliott is adamant he will pinpoint, his first attempt at disarming and deflecting. Each episode makes it clear that there are fictional elements within this historical drama, and Lily is an invention of creator Alexander Cary (“Homeland,” “Lie to Me”). Lily is the audience entry point, representing the vast majority who are not privy to the privilege men like Philby and Elliott have experienced since birth. By making this character a woman, it underscores the additional obstacles that someone in Lily’s position would face—especially in the 1960s. Some sexual and class politics are on the nose, but Lily is not a paper-thin character, and Maxwell Martin is captivating from the jump.
Lily’s role at first is to debrief Elliott after his trip to Beruit to obtain a detailed confession from Philby is far from successful. The disdain directed at Lily from almost everyone in the SIS office has nothing to do with her gender or accent (though that probably doesn’t help), but it is her MI5 status that is an issue. Inter-department pissing contests are as old as time, and there is a clear divide between the intelligence gathering agencies. SIS is an extension of the relationships developed at boarding schools like Eton (where Damian Lewis attended IRL) and Cambridge University, whereas MI5 has a broader recruitment pool. Lily is an outsider in every respect, which sometimes plays in her favor. As the series progresses, the dynamic between Lily and the man she is debriefing moves beyond antagonistic, and Lewis and Maxwell Martin rise to the occasion. 
The presence of the CIA is another disrupting component, testing the ongoing relationship between the countries in the wake of WWII. While the two British agencies will happily stonewall each other, there is a sense of unity when the inherently arrogant James Jesus Angleton (Stephen Kunken) enters the post-Philby Philby defection fray. His vested interest is also a mix of personal and professional, as flashbacks highlight Philby’s universal charm. Pearce is equally adept at portraying Philby’s debonair exterior and the version that no longer stands on stable ground. With Angleton, he plays up his rakish British side and drops precise ego-boosting compliments, but it is opposite Elliott that his complexities are slowly revealed and the story soars.   
Unpicking what happened in Beirut between Philby and Elliott is part of this multi-layered narrative, bouncing across a timeline without onscreen graphics signaling when and where we are. This format demands your attention, immediately pulling you into the mix of recent and distant memories depicting a friendship that begins during WWII. Dialogue is one signpost, and the coloring of the film stock offers another clue to the year. There is also the matter of making Pearce and Lewis look younger in the scenes set 20 years ago, done through subtle de-aging techniques. The contrast is heightened as, in the present, the stress of the job is worn on their faces. While London has recovered from the Blitz, the city has a beaten-down quality, and the use of what appears to be 1960s archival footage adds to the “Ipcress File” aesthetic. 
Along with London in its various grey, grainy and rainy states, director Nick Murphy (“Save Me,” “The Last Kingdom”) takes us on a journey across Beirut, Moscow, Vienna, and Berlin (Bucharest stands in for each of these cities). It is a story that feels personal even when the consequences are vast. The Cold War is sprawling, but “A Spy Among Friends” grapples with the inner workings of a small network of influential men. Yes, spycraft plays a role (including a book of poetry as a key), and yet it is in scenes when two characters sit across from each other that the real codebreaking takes place.  
Viewers of “The Crown” will no doubt recognize one particular incident, but events close to the Queen are shown from a different angle. Other names like Profumo might sound familiar, and a certain famous author pops up in a flashback. It might be tempting to hit pause to Google elements of the series as it plays out, and yet it is best to refrain until the end of the six episodes as the non-linear flashback structure throws up some surprises. 
Historical references are entertaining and add to the intrigue. Yet, “A Spy Among Friends” is best when exploring the intimacy of the almost secret language shared by men like Kym and Elliott. Dirty jokes and limericks they have performed countless times together create a sense of showmanship, and their shared love of cricket is another reminder of the country they were fighting for—or so it seemed. Variations of the word friend are peppered throughout, yet the Russians also have a similar linguistic identity in “comrade.” Ideology separates the two countries, and the why of the men who become double agents is as fascinating as the focus on loyalty. Hypocrisy exists on all sides. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” reads the E.M. Forster quote that opens the first episode. It is through this prism that “A Spy Among Friends” should be viewed. 
The thrill of the covert life is another factor, and each character relishes outsmarting another agent. Lily is equally guilty of enjoying how she makes others underestimate her, and duplicity is an occupational hazard in this business. “A Spy Among Friends” does move at a good pace, with a few lulls here and there. However, there are points where the toggling between various timelines threatens to lose the plot. Thankfully, the three central performances from Maxwell Martin, Lewis, and Pearce hold it together, and this spy—and friendship—story is anything but by the book. [B+]
“A Spy Among Friends” debuts on MGM+ on March 12.

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