A Spy Among Friends review: A new spin on a well-documented scandal
Watch a trailer for A Spy Among Friends
A Spy Among Friends, the most high profile launch title for new UK streaming platform ITVX, retells the well-trodden story of the Cambridge Five.
The spy ring — comprised of Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross — operated in the UK from the 1930s to the 1950s, and have been well-documented on TV and film, most notably in 2003’s Cambridge Spies, starring Samuel West, Toby Stephens and Tom Hollander.
The latest take on the story takes a different approach to the story, building it around Kim Philby, here played by Memento and LA Confidential star Guy Pearce and his friendship with Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Elliot.
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The main crux of the story revolves around Philby’s defection to Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and the ramification of the intelligence he leaked over the past 30 years.
The show examines whether there was a grander conspiracy at play within British intelligence than there may at first seem.
The series is adapted from Ben Macintyre's non-fiction 2014 book, making it the third major adaptation of one of his works in 2022 following the film Operation Mincemeat and BBC series SAS Rogue Heroes.
This series is a far cry from the more bombastic and outlandish SAS series, cut from the same cloth as the likes of Len Deighton and John le Carré.
Fittingly the Cambridge Five were a substantial influence on le Carré works like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and this series feels very much in a similar vein to that work both in tone and period setting.
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The cast are one of the main reasons to watch the series. Lewis and Pearce excel at capturing the years of Elliot and Philby’s friendship, charted through flashbacks from the 1940s to the 1960s and the dissolution of the relationship and the effect it had on each.
Elliot is a slightly unreliable narrator and his interrogations from the fictional character Lily Thomas — played superbly by Anna Maxwell Martin — show a different sort of interrogation to one we might be used to from her in Line of Duty.
We never truly know quite who’s side Elliot’s on and how closely tied his loyalties are to Philby, making for a constantly engaging watch. Outside of the core cast there are further impressive talents including Nicholas Rowe and Adrian Edmondson.
Adding Lily as an extra main character, with much of the focus on her listening to recordings of chats between Elliot and Philby, gives an extra layer to the events.
It also allows the series to comment on the role of women in the intelligence field in the 1960s with Lily more than holding her own against her colleagues, determined to see how widespread the leaks to Moscow are.
Shots of Thomas listening to the recordings can’t help but recall Gene Hackman in The Conversation. Lily’s relationship with her husband and her reticence to share information with him mirrors Elliot’s relationship with his wife, cleverly juxtaposing the two.
The show largely manages to handle its time jumps well but they are frequent and so this is a series that demands the audiences full attention although the outfits and slight changes in hair colour give away which era of Philby’s life we are focused on.
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While of course a series of this nature is naturally sombre in tone, there is a sense of dry humour communicated between the pair’s friendship. There's also a particularly fun interlude involving James Bond creator Ian Fleming and a waterproof tuxedo, a memorable plot device in Goldfinger. The series also finds room to reference the other scandal of the era the Profumo affair.
With the series covering the span of several decades, the production design does a wonderful job of capturing 1960s London and Moscow especially but all the locations featured, including Beirut, look terrific.
A Spy Among Friends is a series packed full of standout performances that help negate its sometimes languid pacing, Lewis and Pearce especially share phenomenal chemistry that really captures the years of friendship and memories shared by the pair.
The addition of new characters from the source material help differentiate this from other takes on the story and keep it engaging while the production design and costumes excel at capturing early 60s London, during the height of the Cold War. This is a series that may go some way to reinterpreting how we view what is a highly publicised scandal and is sure to please fans of the genre.
A Spy Among Friends is streaming on ITVX from 8 December.