Movie Review: Gemma Arterton falls for the “Rogue Agent” — or does she?

A good puzzle thriller entertains with the story it’s telling, and the other directions you figure the story just might go, if only in your mind.

“Rogue Agent” begins in late IRA bombing campaign era Britain, with its intrigues and espionage and pieces of spycraft delivered by our voice-over narrator. But where that story — about “keeping an eye on” suspected terrorists at a British college — goes “nine years later” in the early 2000s, is a cat and mouse tale with cruel and tragic undertones.

It’s a film that keeps a lot of possibile outcomes afloat, any one of which is as plausible as the one that’s “the true story.”

Reviewing the film, written and directed by veterans of British “true crime” series and the upcoming Peacock cyber-combat series “The Undeclared War,” presents a critic with a minefield of potential “spoilers.” But let’s see how many I can avoid as I heartily recommend it.

It’s a Gemma Arterton vehicle, as hers is the voice of the all-knowing narrator we hear in the opening scenes. She lets us know “tricks that spies use” about “how to read a room” and how to make “a connection” with someone just by looking “into their eyes long enough to register their eye color.”

We see a fellow, played by James Norton, take a barman (bartender) job at a pub near a college to “recruit” students to be field agents for his operation. One (Marisa Abela) is reluctant, but soon Sophie and her two classmates (Freya Mavor, Rob Malone) are observing, tricking and even searching the rooms of people “Rob” identifies as under suspicion.

Risky work, seeing as how the Irish Republican Army treated spies. Then Rob rounds them all up in the dead of night with a “You’ve been COMPROMISED” and whisks them away.

“Nine years later,” a London litigation lawyer (Arterton) attracts the attention of a somewhat slick luxury car salesman (Norton), someone she dismisses with extreme prejudice, but someone she returns to apologize to.

And for the first time in this smart, twisty tale, we wonder who’s playing whom and just what all this is about. Because the love affair that ensues is only somewhat credible, with his intriguing intensity and odd blend of gaucherie and charm and her a woman of class and intelligence and her firm’s private investigator (Julian Barratt) on retainer.

But all is not what it seems, and the more she and we learn, the prospects of what this attorney might do to trip up, evade or unite with this “rogue agent” seem to grow in number rather than shrink to just a few choices.

Norton — he had the title role in the very fine “Mr. Jones” — evinces an oily charm here that puts us on our guard, and we’d assume our attorney on hers. I’d say that’s a logically lacking element to the film, the hardest sell among many hard sells folded into it.

But the always beguiling Arterton is quite good at suggesting a focused but perhaps lonely professional woman disarmed by this confident, handsome guy’s excuses, evasions and deflections, maybe even charmed by them. Rob might see red flags in her mistrust and suspicion. But as Alice the attorney doesn’t spot them at every turn, she’s putting a lot more romantic stock in the offbeat magic of having someone introduce you to “the thousand year song” of echoing Tibetan music bowls than one would expect.

“Rogue Agent” presents some things that truly stretch credulity as simple facts, leaving the viewer to slap our head in wonder because, damned if this story isn’t “true.” You can look it up, although that’s not recommended until after you’ve seen it.

Because as this clever script winds its way towards a finale that’s not really a conclusion, you’d be cheating yourself of the fun of the mystery-thriller you’re watching, and the one you’re frantically writing in your head as possibility after possibility pops up, is wrestled with and discarded to make way for the next.

Rating: unrated, sex, smoking, profanity

Cast: Gemma Arterton, James Norton, Marisa Abela, Sarah Goldberg, Freya Mavor, Rob Malone and
Shazad Latif.

Credits: Directed by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, scripted by Michael Bonner, Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.