Opaque characters

‘The Operative’ takes the fun out of the spy game

The Operative, Diane Kruger on the right, Martin Freeman on the left (photo credit: KOLYA BRANDT)
The Operative, Diane Kruger on the right, Martin Freeman on the left
(photo credit: KOLYA BRANDT)
Audiences tend to be fascinated by female spies who get sexually involved with the people they’re spying on. That cliché underpins many novels, movies and television series about spying, from Mata Hari to James Bond to Yuval Adler’s latest film, the English-language movie The Operative.
Most of this spy fiction features gorgeous women who are cool operators, and Diane Kruger, who stars in the title role in The Operative, got her big break playing Helen of Troy in the 2004 movie Troy, so she fits the bill. But the movie is so tasteful and matter-of-fact about the espionage game that just about the only fun in the movie is watching her have an affair with a man she meets in Tehran, and even that isn’t as much fun as it should be.
The movie is based on the novel The English Teacher, by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a former intelligence officer, and Adler has said in interviews that the relationship between the handler and the operative is what drew him to the story.
He explored a similar theme in his debut film, Bethlehem, in 2013, which starred Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar’i as a Shin Bet agent and his Palestinian informant. Both of these actors have gone on to play key roles in Fauda, the hit series about an Israeli counterterrorism unit and its Palestinian adversaries, and that show, which so often ends on cliffhangers, has raised the bar for action and suspense in spy drama.
So has Homeland, which featured an extraordinarily complicated relationship between CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and returning POW-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in its first three seasons. Homeland, in turn, was based on an Israeli series, Prisoners of War.
The Americans, the story of married Soviet spies in 1980s Washington, also featured a complex and suspenseful portrait of two agents who did anything and everything to fulfill their government’s orders.
While it was once commonplace to disparage television in favor of the movies, the tables have definitely turned, and it’s sad to say that The Operative is not as compelling as any given episode on one of these series. The ingredients of an enjoyable spy flick are all present in The Operative, but they rarely come together.
Kruger plays Rachel, an aimless young woman, neither Jewish nor Israeli, who attracts the attention of a British-born Mossad agent, Thomas (Martin Freeman). Her spirit of adventure and language skills make her a natural for intelligence work, and she is sent to Tehran, where she works as an English teacher, but where her real role is to find information on the nuclear program. There, she gets involved with an Iranian, Farhad (Cas Anvar), who runs a hi-tech company that works with the nuclear program, an affair that isn’t part of her assignment, but instead of recalling her, Thomas lets it play out.
While the actors are appealing, the characters are so opaque that it’s hard to read them or care about them. While I’m no fan of spelling everything out, it’s never clear exactly why Rachel gets into spying and whether or not she enjoys it, nor do we really understand how she feels about Farhad. Is she just bored or does she truly love him? Thomas seems to have complex feelings for her as well, but, like everything else in this film, it’s all annoyingly understated.
The plot gets going when Rachel, who has disappeared over a year ago, suddenly contacts Thomas out of the blue and he has to explain the story of how he recruited her to his boss. The shifting timelines make the story seem a bit more complicated than it actually is.
And it is literally as well as figuratively colorless, filmed deliberately in washed-out color. By the time, late in the movie, that there is a chase through the desert, I was so detached from the plot that instead of being on the edge of my seat, I was thinking about how much better paced a similar chase sequence would have been on Homeland.