Host: Rene Auberjonois.
Somerset Maugham’s keen insight into human character surfaces brightly in the four stories –“The Dark Woman,””The Traitor,””Mr. Harrington’s Washing,””The Hairless Mexican”– about British WWI secret agent John Ashenden and his adventures on the Continent. With mildness concealing deadliness, the adventures , as interpreted by writer David Pirie and produced by Joe Knatchbull as two two-hour spex, are as charming as they are adroit.
Agent Ashenden, London playwright who first appeared in the 1928 novel “Ashenden” and surfaced only incidentally in two other Maugham novels, is based partially on Maugham and his own experiences. With writer Pirie’s assist, he has been joined by new characters who work well within the context of the stories.
James Bond’s literary ancestor knows nothing of gadgetry — there’s not a single, malevolent hidden mike among the four tales — and little of romance.
There’s a fair lady, Sarah (Fiona Mollison), briefly, and an adventuress in the first case (an Italian dancer played threateningly by Harriet Walter), and an American delight in Genoa (Elizabeth McGovern), but they’re threads in the fabric, not fringe.
Ashenden first finds himself assigned to the Italian woman who’s in love with a Swiss-based German agent who must be lured onto Allied territory through the dancer.
In another exercise, Ashenden confronts a dangerous Britisher living in Switzerland, married to a German and apparently working for the enemy.
Alan Bennett puts in a strong perf as the husband and Anna Carteret as his dedicated wife is terrif. In another case, Rene Auberjonois ably interps the American Harrington trying to make a deal with the Kerensky government in Petrograd, with Susanna Hamnett limning Ashenden’s former Russian g.f. loyal to the government.
Agent Ashenden has made only one other screen appearance: John Gielgud in Hitchcock’s 1936 “Secret Agent.” Ashenden as played by Alex Jennings makes a pleasant, gentlemanly, if not charismatic, figure in tune with the period’s style and conventions.
Christopher Morahan’s understated, authoritative direction plays to Maugham’s bittersweet stories, and Carl Davis’s first-rate score beautifully supports project.
Chris Seager’s adept camerawork handsomely establishes the period piece; Dave King’s editing is superb. Production designer Don Taylor worked wonders establishing WWI atmosphere and settings.