“A Perfect Spy” is perfect television, and perfectly irresistible.
It is also as challenging as it is rewarding, seven hours of enthralling psychological intrigue and exploration bound by a dark ribbon of ambiguity. You would expect no less from John le Carre.
“The very name is a wake-up call,” Alistair Cooke notes in introducing the BBC adaptation of Le Carre’s latest--and some say best--novel that soulfully opens the 1988-89 “Masterpiece Theatre” season on PBS.
The wake-up call is for 8 p.m. Sunday on Channels 24 and 50, and 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15.
This is the third of Le Carre’s novels to reach TV via the BBC in recent years, following the brilliant “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (which Channel 28 is reviving at 10 p.m. Thursdays starting next week) and the very fine “Smiley’s People,” both of which submerged the spy business in cynicism, moral corruption and frayed, shabby romanticism.
Those soiling elements are also present in “A Perfect Spy” to some extent. Despite the title, however, spywork is the framework, not the heart of this story, whose double-dealing protagonist Magnus Pym (Benedict Taylor as a teen-ager, Peter Egan as an adult) is principally engaged in searching for his own center and seeking liberation from his father, Rick (Ray McAnally), a charming, unscrupulous con man who in many ways has been the architect of his son’s misery.
Their pivotal relationship echoes that of Le Carre and his own father, Ronnie Cornwell, who, like the high-living Rick, juggled and roller-coastered through life as a worldly con artist undaunted by spells of bankruptcy and imprisonment, and was a man who profoundly influenced his son’s life. (“Had I loved him or hated him?” Le Carre wrote in 1986 about his late dad.)
Arthur Hopcraft’s excellent screenplay forgoes the complex flashbacking of the novel in favor of a simpler start-to-finish structure that demands less of the viewer. Opening in the 1930s, the first hour of “A Perfect Spy” finds Rick deserting young Magnus (twins Nicholas and Jonathan Haley) and his mother in the course of fleeing from the cops, then rediscovering his son and making him part of his scams and shady business deals. The very traits of deception and treachery that Magnus learns from Rick are what will make him such a splendid spy--the bit player in his father’s schemes going on to become an actor in his own much-grander charade.
It’s while attending a Swiss university that Magnus meets the two other men who will shape his life. One is the British agent Jack Brotherhood (Alan Howard), who recruits Magnus for the secret service--known as “the firm"--and becomes his mentor. The other is the young Czech Axel (Rudiger Weigang), who becomes his close friend, then later induces him to become a double agent and betray his country.
Although “A Perfect Spy” is ambitiously mounted and handsomely filmed, the very inwardness and deep introspection of Le Carre’s characters are what keep the story TV-sized. These battles of the mind fit compactly on the small screen under the able direction of Peter Smith.
Beautifully played by Egan, the fated Magnus is a cold, ruthless, manipulative tactician for whom total sympathy is out of the question. It is Magnus the victim who earns our compassion. Although shrewd and cunning, he is a self-deluding man who is the sad, unhappy product of his upbringing and whose search for meaning and fulfillment reaches a dead end.
Weaving in and out of his life and subconsciousness is Rick--at once mischievous and malevolent, amusing and amoral, a character so superbly realized that McAnally’s supporting performance may turn out to be the season’s best on American TV.
“A Perfect Spy” operates on multiple levels, one of which is biographical--the agonizing Magnus/Rick relationship being Le Carre’s way of publicly exorcising his personal demons and acknowledging his ambivalent feelings toward his own father.
On a secondary level, it is a spy story that feeds our ravenous appetite for tales of espionage, particularly of the English variety.
“Our fictional spies are different from yours,” explained Hopcraft, who also adapted “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” for TV, but turned down “Smiley’s People” because he didn’t want to get locked into the spy genre. “Perhaps our spies are more elegant, more cerebral, less given to car chasses and shootouts and extreme violence,” he said by phone from London.
“What Le Carre offers is an inside view of a particular kind of English society that not only Americans, but continental Europeans, are fascinated by. Americans see our fictional spies as rather like David Niven, someone with an aura of intellectual and social excellence. Well, what Le Carre does is not to deglamorize the people; he deglamorizes the job. He sets the spy in a much more realistic context.”
Le Carre’s most famous spy is George Smiley, the bland, efficient, owlish intellectual whom the author acknowledges he used as a “proxy father figure” in lieu of writing about his real father.
“I think the public fascination with the spy is that he is the secret man, the man who lives a totally secret life,” Hopcraft said. “I think we all have a considerable degree of that in us, that quality of a spy who deceives everybody and very often himself.”
That, ultimately, is what “A Perfect Spy” is about, deception and self-deception, in the family and in “the firm.”
Sins of the father and sins of the son.