A Tremendous Restraint and Delicacy to Lewis’ Performance
by Shane Ryan | Paste Magazine | March 10, 2023
If you are, like me, intermittently obsessed with the business of espionage, the name Kim Philby holds a sort of ineffable mystique in the darkest corners of your brain. Philby was the most notorious of the Cambridge Five, a group of British intelligence operatives who betrayed their country in ways big and small by spying for the Soviets from the 1930s through World War II, and in some cases well into the Cold War. Philby rose the highest, and caused the most damage and sacrificed the most lives—at one point, he was the chief British intelligence officer in the U.S.—and what’s most remarkable about his story is not his ideology, or his treason, but the fact that he should have been caught decades before he fled to the USSR.
Suspicions, allegations, and outright evidence of his betrayal had accumulated, and in 1951—after helping two of his fellow KGB spies escape to Moscow—he was accused publicly, grilled, and eventually had to resign from MI6… only to be granted immunity. He continued to work as a spy until he finally fled to Moscow in the ’60s, slipping from the grasp of British intelligence, whose thriving old-boy network may have let him go on purpose to avoid a scandal.
How could this possibly happen? To hear Philby tell it, it’s because he was born in the “governing class.” In other words, he was never going to be pressed too hard, and he would always get the benefit of the doubt, because he was the right kind of person, and the upper classes protected their own. To his friends and colleagues, a betrayal of the sort he committed was unthinkable, despite the fact that they’d watched several others do the same thing. And so he only had to keep his nerve, never confess, and keep double-crossing his friends and country until it became too egregious even for the diehards to ignore.
This is the dynamic explored in the excellent new MGM+ show (formerly Epix) A Spy Among Friends, a fictional look at the Philby affair based extremely loosely on the book of the same title by Ben Macintyre. While Macintyre’s compelling work is nonfiction, we’re told early on that the six-part limited series is “a work of imagination,” using real historical figures to tell a story they like just a little bit better. And if there’s a quibble to be had, it’s this: The overarching narrative here is that the spymasters of the British Empire were not simply duped over and over in the most humiliating way, but operating on some deeper level. You can argue that it’s a cop-out to depict something this way, even if you label it clearly as fiction; it exonerates the upper crust for the snobbish blind faith leading to one of the most disastrous diplomatic incidents the west ever suffered in the Cold War.
There is something legitimate in that line of argument, but the show is a comprehensive pleasure despite it. Guy Pearce stars as Philby, and it’s hard to imagine a better casting choice; he’s vulnerable, a little desperate, but at heart always charming, always skilled at making others love him. John LeCarre, the great spy novelist, recognized the spy-like tradecraft in the acting profession, particularly as it applied to Alec Guinness in his depiction of George Smiley, and in Pearce you can see the raw energy that blurs the lines between his own real-life craft and the tightrope walk undertaken for decades by Philby. He is pitch-perfect. Nearly as great, in perhaps a more taxing role, is Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s friend-turned-adversary whose task was to finally debrief Philby when he had been caught beyond reasonable doubt, and return him to England. Lewis’ depiction is rife with rage at Philby, panic at the potential crash of his own career, but in the best moments, full of a love for Philby that even the greatest betrayal couldn’t erode. There’s a tremendous restraint and delicacy to Lewis’ performance that is, to me, miles better than his solid performance in Homeland, and when that restraint slips, the emotional release is something to behold.
If Elliott were alive to see this depiction (he passed in 1994), he would have little to complain about, since the broader implication is that the final interrogation of Philby produced some kind of valuable intelligence, a last coup to turn the advantage back to the British. As far as any actual evidence shows, this is pure fantasy, and again, if there’s a critique to be made it’s that the writers seem to have an impulse to rewrite history and make British intelligence look less cloddish. Nevertheless, it effectively adds an element of drama that carries the series into its second half, and if there’s a sort of narrative conformity here, it works for the way it highlights the interplay between the two men.
We haven’t even mentioned Anna Maxwell Martin, a delight as Elliott’s interrogator and eventual ally, and a sort of necessary bedrock on which the whole production rests. Without her, Lewis and Pearce couldn’t soar, and soar they do. Long after I’ve forgotten the exact plot, I’ll remember the intensity and the deep feeling in their scenes; the sense of how history can rupture a friendship, but never quite destroy its seeds. And to its credit, the intelligence of A Spy Among Friends rests on its comfort sitting patiently in the quiet moments; like the best of LeCarre, they mine gold from simple conversations. The subtlety is the genius, and a well-earned byproduct of understanding your subject matter and operating from a deep cache of knowledge. The writers and directors display consummate authority over the subject matter, and that expertise frees Pearce and Lewis to give two of the year’s best performances.
Despite diverging from reality, the important truth A Spy Among Friends gets right is the complications that plague even matters as serious as betrayal. In real life, Philby didn’t consider himself a traitor; he considered himself a Soviet operative who had served his country faithfully from the start to end of his career. LeCarre, it’s interesting to note, was himself a former intelligence officer, and had his cover blown (and his career ended) by Philby; understandably, he refused to meet the man in ’88 when given the opportunity. But Britain’s other great spy novelist, Graham Greene, maintained a correspondence with Philby for the rest of his life, and even wrote the introduction to his book; Greene understood, intuitively, what might motivate a man like Philby to act. This six-part series explores these ambiguities adroitly; like spycraft itself, there is an inevitable complication to matters of the human heart, and while the world must pass judgment, in the innermost chambers we love what we love and we do what we do for reasons that cannot be explained, but, on levels deeper than language, are nonetheless understood.
A Spy Among Friends premieres Sunday, March 12th on MGM+ (formerly Epix).
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