It’s a Role Lewis Plays Beautifully
by Daniel D’Addario | Variety | March 12, 2023
The story of Kim Philby is perhaps too good to make up. The British spy, a double agent for Moscow, operated at the highest levels of the intelligence community; his ability to disseminate information to the Soviet Union, to which he eventually defected, is proof, perhaps, of the power of personal charm and erudition to cover over what’s lying in plain sight.
That’s the powerfully told story of “A Spy Among Friends,” which streamed on ITVX in the United Kingdom last year and which now arrives on nascent streamer MGM+. Guy Pearce plays Philby, who has at the series’ outset been a valued Soviet source for many years; likely his closest friend in tradecraft, Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), must get a confession from him. We see the pair’s relationship over time in layered flashbacks, adding context and understanding to Elliott’s failure to nail down Philby.
The story is adapted by Alexander Cary from Ben Macintyre’s novel, which embroiders on the real-life Philby and Elliott’s tale; it’s rather a clever thing to use likely the most infamous real-life British espionage scandal as the backbone of a John Le Carré-esque tale. The story is told through Elliott’s recollections: Anna Maxwell Martin plays a fictional interrogator who walks through the story of Elliott and Philby’s relationship, and who brings a crystalline level of distrust and disdain to her work. Among the pleasures of “A Spy Among Friends” is the spectacle of Elliott’s performing for the woman scrutinizing him, adding shading and dimension to his memories.
For what passed between Philby and Elliott is perhaps unknowable even to the men themselves — how, indeed, could a spy as experienced as Elliott let Philby slip away? Part of it, “A Spy Among Friends” argues, is the dynamic nodded at by the title: The clubby and parochial world of intelligence ran on social connections, befitting a culture undergirded by endless unwritten codes of what is socially appropriate.