You’d think that more than 30 years after it ended, the Cold War would lose its ability to inspire spy stories. You will be wrong. While spy stories were already around when the Cold War began, it’s an undeniable fact that that tumultuous period was when the genre really came into its own. And now, you can return to that famous era again with exciting AMC/ITV shows Ipress Files. But first, a little background.
Throughout the ’60s, there were rumors of secret CIA experiments involving mind control (rumors we now know are at least partially true). Len Deighton‘s novel and subsequent film adaptation starring Michael Caine capitalized on this fear to tell the iconic story of brainwashing and espionage. The 1965 film brainwashing scene eventually became so influential that you can see his touch in various films from Manchurian Candidate to Captain America: Winter Soldier (and even 2002 Scooby-Doo). While the mind control element is what was in the 1965s Ipress Files Notable for that, the film is also important because it provides a realistic and realistic alternative to the flashy spy fiction that looks most memorable in the James Bond films.
So given how prominent the source material is, the new miniseries adaptation of Ipress Files already have some big shoes to fill. That’s why it’s a good thing that the author John Hodge (Watching the train) and director James Wattins (Woman in black clothes) have chosen to make this show the most appreciated story on its own. While there are references and homage to the 1965 film, the series does not seek to be a recreation of the film and that is the main reason why it is so much fun.
Some things remain the same between the two, the most important of which is the character of Harry Palmer. Introduced as a British soldier in a divided Berlin who engages in some casual dark marketing on the side, Harry is the one who serves as the eyes and ears of the audience in this dark world. At first glance, Peaky Blinder star Joe Cole doesn’t seem right for the role, especially if you compare him to Caine. But that’s what makes casting Cole such a great choice. You look at this version of Harry Palmer and there’s no way in a million years you’d expect him to be a spy, exactly what Harry Palmer should be. Aside from the pure visual elements, Cole also puts on some great performances in the series, especially towards the end when he discovers firsthand what Ippress really is. Spoiler: yes, it’s a brainwashing technique, and Harry becomes the target, leading to some surreal and mind-bending scenes.
Jean Courtney, Harry’s partner, played by Sue Lloyd in the original film, was also included in the show but here he is given a much bigger role. Lucy Boynton brilliant as Jean, playing a character with a strength and poise that only his male counterparts could aspire to. He’s the one who does most of the actual spying and if there were any complaints about Jean’s portrayal on the show, there should have been more of him. There’s a kind of romance subplot between Jean and Harry, which honestly feels a little unnecessary, but the character shines the most when he lies and manipulates his way through the shady world of espionage. Jean’s main subject of manipulation was Paul Maddox (Ashley Thomas), a CIA agent he first met while trying to organize operations in Berlin. A new character created for the show, Maddox is a very complex person and Ashley Thomas’ performances are constantly keeping audiences guessing where Maddox’s true loyalties lie.
All that being said, the absolute scene stealer in this series is, without a doubt, Tom Hollander as Major Dalby, Jean and Harry’s boss who is a veteran of the spy game. Dalby is smooth, smart, and has everything you’d want to be a great spymaster, and Hollander delivers an excellent performance in a role that’s just as good as you’d expect from an award-winning actor. Originally the antagonist in the 1965 novel and film, the show’s take on Dalby is by far the most interesting, and I, for one, would love to see a spinoff show entirely dedicated to Dalby’s adventures. As head of War Office Operational Communications (Temporary) – WOOC (P) in short – Dalby is comparable to the M from the Bond films, but Hollander’s performance puts him more in the league. Gary OldmanSmileys from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
It’s not that the show doesn’t have problems. While the story is well crafted, there are moments towards the middle when the plot feels like it’s starting to get a little out of control. If you don’t pay the most careful attention, it’s easy to get lost and be left wondering where this is all going. Also, if you’re a voracious consumer of spy fiction like me, it’s pretty easy to anticipate most of the major twists. The payoff is still worth it, with a newly introduced murder plotline that wasn’t in the film or book adding some chops to the second half of the show.
When watching the show, it is important to remember that the original film is set in its own present, while the series is part of the period. It worked to the show’s advantage, allowing it to incorporate true historical events and foreshadow others, especially one fateful day in Dallas, Texas that would shock the world. Throw in some great art directions and artsy camera angles, and you have a series that’s a tribute to 60s spy fiction because it is a reimagining of the same.
This miniseries is best enjoyed when you watch it as a standalone story with no reference to the 1965 film. That said, it manages to retain the realism and grit for which this film is so acclaimed. There are no good guys or bad guys in this series, no superhumans in suits performing impossible stunts. Deaths, even the deaths of relatively insignificant minions, are treated with the utmost respect and care. The person who provided the most significant share of the spy work was actually an almost invisible analyst named Carswell (Irfan Shamji) and even the most cowardly enemy spies are given moments of true humanity. Ipress Files not the spy story of your gardens, nor is it a gloomy and doomed picture of terrible people doing terrible things. In that balance between the two extremes Ipress Files manages to fit in — and while it’s far from perfect, it’s definitely a show that will have you waiting with bated breath every week for the next thrilling episode.
First episode of Ipress Files premieres on Thursday, May 19, with the remaining episodes airing weekly every Thursday, exclusively on AMC+.
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