A Spy Among Friends, review: a cerebral and fiendish remix of the Kim Philby tale

Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott and Guy Pearce as Kim Philby - Sony Pictures Television/Sam Taylor
Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott and Guy Pearce as Kim Philby - Sony Pictures Television/Sam Taylor

Nothing illustrated the length of the journey made by Kim Philby from West to East, from British mandarin to Soviet icon, than his funeral. The casket, in the Russian style, was open, enabling his widow to lean in for a final caress of that infamous poker face. (You can watch the footage for yourself in Adam Curtis’s compendious forthcoming BBC series about the death rattle of communism.)

In a sense the lid will never close over the coffin of England’s most notorious traitor. Like other enigmas – see also Albert Speer – the story of a third man with two paymasters and four wives can never be definitively told, the case never closed. Hunting for the real Philby among the false fronts and double lives is like wandering around a maze uncertain if you’re looking for the entrance or the exit. From every new angle glint more questions.

It must be quite a challenge for an actor to pick a way into such a slippery nullity. The latest to try on the mask(s) is Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends (ITVX), which spins round Philby’s flit from Beirut in 1963 under the quivering nostrils of MI6. The prelude to his escape was a four-day grilling from his old Secret Intelligence Service friend and colleague Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis). In this telling, both MI5 and the KGB train a searchlight into their mysterious quasi-bromance, with its opaque history of unplumbed motives and moot alliances.

The story was fairly comprehensively explored in The Spy Who Went Into the Cold, a documentary for Storyville in 2013. It included a fascinating interview with Philby’s widow, Rufina, who recalled a pathetically insecure old man fearful of letting her out of his sight: the traitor fearing betrayal, perhaps.

This dramatisation is based on the 2015 book by Ben Macintyre. Non-fiction’s spymaster general is having quite a run on screen after last year's film version of his book Operation Mincemeat, as well as the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of his SAS: Rogue Heroes. If Mincemeat was a more straightforward adaptation, in this retelling Alexander Cary (who wrote several episodes of Homeland), has chopped the story up into a Dadaist collage stretching back to the Blitz and beyond to Vienna in 1934.

The drama essentially consists of three interlocking interrogations: between Philby and Elliott, Philby and his Soviet handler Sergei (Karel Roden) and, most intriguingly, Elliott and a steely MI5 debriefer called Mrs Taylor (Anna Maxwell Martin). Every time a question is asked, a portal slides open and the plot melts into memory.

The densely webbed structure is much suited to a story where truth eludes capture. The viewer’s proper attention is called for, and can be freely given in part thanks to performances so punctilious and finely wrought that it doesn’t seem to matter that Pearce is required to cover 30 years and Lewis 20. Apart from Beirut, it unfolds in a set of claustrophobic interiors, all impeccably grim and unwelcoming. One room even has a symbolically stuck door. Cheerful interludes jolly up the gloom: wartime parties, a trip to the theatre to see Morecambe and Wise, a funny little cameo for Ian Fleming, who’s testing a new wetsuit under which a chap can wear black tie.

The idea that Elliott merits suspicion as much as Philby more or less holds water. If the plot springs a leak it’s in the private life of Mrs Taylor, whose husband is given a speech about how unknowable her job makes her. Implying equivalence with Philby, whose falsity ruptured three marriages, feels bogus and, unlike much of the rest of this unflattering portrait of the British establishment, fictional.

A Spy Among Friends was shown at the London Film Festival; it comes to ITVX in November