Heavy-Handed and Sluggish Conrad Adaptaion (See 'Sabotage')
Tsuyoshi | Kyoto, Japan | 02/03/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"'Secret Agent' (1996) stars very strong cast -- Bob Hoskins (also ex-producer), Patricia Arquatte, Christian Bale, Gerard Depardieu, Jim Broadbent, Eddie Izzard, and uncredited Robin Williams. The music score is Philip Glass, and the director is Christopher Hampton, who made 'Carrington' before this one. So the film should be better than average classic novel adaptaions, which it isn't. This Conrad adaptation is sluggish, not knowing what it really wants to show.
One great disadventage is that we have seen the adaptation of this Joseph Conrad novel before -- Hitchcock's 'Sabotage' (1936) starring Sylvia Sydney. (Not to be confused with the same director's film named 'Secret Agent.') This version, not perfect to be sure, knows what it is doing, for the master of suspence turned it into a spy story with a thrilling sequence about a bomb hidden in a bag carried by an innocent boy.
However, the new version, though it is more faithful to the original novel, and proud of its great cast, has no sense of what it really is doing. The film opens quite promisingly, with Bob Hoskins' Verloc, a shopkeeper in 1890s London, who actually is a spy in the pay of Russian embassy. He is summoned by the Russain ambassador (very good Eddie Izzard), who tells Verloc to demolish one symbolic building in Britain with a bomb, the building which represents 'time' (you know where).
So far, interesting. But as if to imitate the original novelist's slow moving narrative, the film unwisely introduces many flashbacks that tell us the outcomes of the botched plans. Yes, Conrad uses (intentionally or not, I do not know) the confused narrative that seems to have lost the sense of coherent chronological order (read 'Nostromo'). Hampton not only employs this flashback method once, but twice (!) to show how Mrs. Verloc (miscast Arquatte) meets her fate. So irritating.
The production designs are excellent, the acting is good all in all -- Jim Broadbent as police inspector and Robin Williams as The Professor around whose body a bomb is strapped are memorable among them -- and Philip Glass provides good socre. However, all is wasted or misused, and even Glass's music starts to sound repetitious. The film uses it when there is no need, and that is really annoying.
I like the atmosphere, and I don't think Joseph Conrad is a difficult material to make a film out of it (see 'Victory' made the year before). But Christopher Hampton as director, though good as screenwriter, seems to have killed the material with heavy-handed direction. And its characters that should be more interesting with a smooth story, too."
Amazing Cast-Weak Movie
L Gontzes | Athens, Greece | 04/01/2006
(1 out of 5 stars)
"Secret Agent was quite a disappointment, considering the makeup of the cast: Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Bob Hoskins, Christian Bale, and Patricia Arquette among others. The movie brings to the screen the story of an Englishman, living with his young wife and her retarded brother in the city of London. Things, however, are not as they seem in 19th Century London, with spies, double agents, anarchists and revolutionaries having a field day... In short, the acting is surprisingly average (!), the setting is pretty good, while the dialogues and the plot are below average. The movie has that Sherlock Holmes feel about it, but without the "magic," meaning that in the end you are left... numb, and wondering: "Was that it?" As for the rating, it could have been PG-13. Though the potential for a great movie was definitely there it fails to take off. A shame really... "
I have never read the book...
Trevor Willsmer | 01/07/2000
(2 out of 5 stars)
"and I admit I did watch it only for Eddie Izzard's performance as the Russian emmissary, AND I DID find it difficult to stay awake....BUT the performances are wonderful all around. Christian Bale is impressive, Robin Williams is delightful, and Bob Hoskins is charming. This dark drama is engaging, as long as you pour yourself a cup of coffee before settling in to watch it."
Bomb's the word
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 11/15/2004
(1 out of 5 stars)
"I actually made it to the end of Christopher Hampton's disastrous adaptation of Conrad's atypical novel, but I envy the wisdom of those who gave up halfway. It's yet another in the long line of failed Joseph Conrad adaptations, and quite possibly the very worst. This German-British co-production was an infamously troubled picture that spent a long time on the shelf before being barely released, and it's easy to speculate that much of that time was spent in re-editing. If that was the case, it certainly didn't improve the end product.
Conrad is an incredibly cinematic writer at times, but for some reason the film adaptations have all too often been staid, lifeless and overly verbose, and this is certainly a classic example. Where Ridley Scott gave a visual feast to represent the failure of the Napoleonic dream in The Duellists and Richard Brooks managed an relatively intimate epic adventure with Lord Jim, Hampton merely manages a way below average Masterpiece Theater TV adaptation that is short on real cinematic flourish, opening and closing shots aside. The script never comes to grips with the web of daily betrayals on the domestic front that are mirrored by political and official ones, nor does it ever reflect the self-loathing with which Conrad filled the novel (the Verloc family is a grotesque parody of his own). In fact, all it does is hit story points while leaving character and subtext barely touched.
Hampton's direction is even worse. Despite paring down the narrative and losing whole characters, he never builds up a sense of momentum. Shots seem awkwardly timed - not disastrously so, but just never quite right - and his handling of what should have been an impressive cast (bar the typically disastrous Patricia Arquette) extremely poor. The three lead performances are particularly anodyne. Hoskins is invisible in all the wrong ways as Verloc in an utterly inconsequential performance, Christian Bale never once convinces as the retarded Stevie and the bafflingly prolific Arquette once again proves that while she may have worked with some of the top directors in the business, she's managed to learn absolutely nothing from the experience. To be fair, the performance is not her usually utterly inept zombie impersonation: she has actually risen to the level of merely being very bad, her passable cockney accent almost giving the vague illusion that there might be vague signs of life somewhere under her clumsy line readings. But as a tragic heroine, she is indeed pitiful in all the wrong ways.
Robin Williams is almost successful in his dialog scenes as the Professor, the one part of the film where Conrad's nihilistic vision of the impossibility of combating political violence remains. His scenes in the restaurant with a gaunt Gerard Depardieu (a long way from his best here) have real power, but this is dissipated by those scenes that require more that stillness. When he moves through the streets of Soho with his hand on a bomb trigger, his stern demeanor frankly looks comical. Nor is he helped by his alleyway encounter with Inspector Heat, played all too broadly by Jim Broadbent in full "'allo, 'allo, 'allo, and what do we 'ave 'ere?" mode. Comparisons with his corrupt copper Slater in the Britcom Only Fools and Horses are sadly unavoidable. Nor does Hampton's obsession for casting comedians end there, with Eddie Izzard's naturally hesitant demeanor making him an awkward presence as the ambassador who triggers the plot (Germanic in the novel, Russian here). He almost manages, but menacing bureaucracy is beyond him.
Making matters worse is a typical Phillip Glass score. On its own musical terms, it is fine, but allied to the images it does the picture no end of damage. It smothers the performances, draws constant attention to itself and doesn't fit the milieu at all. Only in the impressive opening and closing themes does it add anything: elsewhere it just adds the final nail to the coffin.
A complete misfire on every level."
Dark and taut and true to the book
Trevor Willsmer | 07/06/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I liked this film a great deal. All the acting is exceptional, especially Christian Bale as Stevie and Robin Williams as a 19th century Mad Bomber. It has a wonderful score by Glass."