The true-story raw materials for Rogue Agent would more typically be fashioned into either a fascinating magazine article or a watchable but overlong streaming miniseries. To whatever extent that it works as a feature film is largely attributable to Gemma Arterton. This might seem counterintuitive—not because Arterton is a bad actor, but because she tends to switch, as needed, between a few dependable, unremarkable types. There’s the restless-in-love object of desire (Tamara Drewe; Gemma Bovery); the plucky WWII figure (Their Finest; Summerland) and the British-pulp soldier (Quantum of Solace; The King’s Man), with some obligatory and forgettable Hollywood love-interest roles along the way. This mix of star quality and genericism is perfect for Rogue Agent, whose effectiveness depends on a lack of certainty over what genre, exactly, it will occupy.
To give away too much would spoil the movie’s modest entertainment value, though the movie itself might telegraph enough to do that anyway. It opens in the early ’90s, with Robert (James Norton) recruiting several English university students for an MI5-driven mission to stop an IRA plot. It’s a tense, low-tech little intro—and if you’re unfamiliar with the real-life story, it’s surprising to see the movie then jump forward a decade, when Robert meets Alice (Arterton), a successful lawyer. He sees her every day during her walk to work, and he’s attracted to her. Her resistance stays just barely more intrigued than wary, while his persistence stays just barely more charming than pushy, and they begin seeing each other. But how will his secret-agent lifestyle fit in with this new relationship? Is this a movie about Gemma Arterton getting recruited for a stealthy mission, or Gemma Arterton navigating the perils of semi-modern love?
These questions may occupy some audiences longer than others. It helps, obviously, to have a fascination with Arterton, whose particular Britishness somehow encompasses both stiff-upper-lip perseverance and singleton dissatisfaction. She’s a crisp beauty with just a hint of ungainliness, and when the script calls for her to tell her new would-be suitor to fuck off, she hits precisely the right note of confident exasperation. Her ability to appear equally likely to swoon or haul off and punch someone works well in a movie that gradually reveals itself as a different sort of procedural than it initially appears. Norton, meanwhile, has the showier role of the two leads, as a man blessed with the gift of providing reasonable-sounding excuses, which is also an actor’s curse: Any moment where he seems less than authoritative serves to undermine the character. Sadly, there are a few such moments in this movie, pushing a sense of creeping suspicion about Robert too close to the fore, too soon.
This isn’t really Norton’s fault; Rogue Agent just isn’t quite substantial enough for a two-hour story. The relationship between Robert and Alice is easily the most compelling in the picture (lucky, too, because for long stretches it’s the only one there). But directors/co-writers Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn haven’t figured out a way to dramatize the full story without breaking from that point of view. The movie regularly checks in on Sophie (Marisa Abela), one of the girls from the film’s grabby opening, and eventually follows up with Robert’s other recruits. By that point, though, the wider view feels perfunctory, with all the visceral buzz of making sure all the proper paperwork is in order. Not even a late-breaking attempt to develop a righteous-vengeance angle can zap the movie back to life.
At times, Rogue Agent feels reluctant to fully engage in the kind of deception that might make it a trickier, more “fun” piece of work; it’s almost too tasteful for its own good. Patterson, Lawn and their cinematographer Larry Smith clearly have the chops to create something both visually detailed and slick; as with Arterton, the movie benefits from being able to look the part. This could be a grounded spy thriller, a psychological romance or a shell game. As it turns out, the movie is so steady and even-keeled that it can’t really abide the full pleasures of genre—or of movie stars, even one as relatively minor as Arterton, whose heartbreak and anger the movie regards without really digging into. It settles instead for workmanlike respectability.
Directors: Adam Patterson, Declan Lawn
Writers: Adam Patterson, Declan Lawn, Michael Bronner
Starring: Gemma Arterton, James Norton, Marisa Abela, Sarah Goldberg
Release Date: August 12, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.