A dour study of terrorism, 1880s style, "The Secret Agent" represents an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's only London-based novel, the fidelity of which to the original text does not yield a terrifically exciting film. Christopher Hampton's second directorial outing, after "Carrington," is appropriately gloomy and grim, but these are not qualities that will recommend it to most audiences.

A dour study of terrorism, 1880s style, “The Secret Agent” represents an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s only London-based novel, the fidelity of which to the original text does not yield a terrifically exciting film. Christopher Hampton’s second directorial outing, after “Carrington,” is appropriately gloomy and grim, but these are not qualities that will recommend it to most audiences. Without top reviews, there will be nothing to sell, resulting in bleak B.O. prospects.

When Alfred Hitchcock filmed the story as “Sabotage” in 1936, he made any number of changes to increase its melodramatic charge, beginning by updating it. Hampton is intent upon retaining the full Victorian dreariness of the setting, with nearly every scene taking place in drab interiors or outdoors on a rainy night.

Central figure is Verloc (Bob Hoskins), an undistinguished little man fortunate to have found an attractive younger wife, Winnie (Patricia Arquette), who looks after her mentally feeble younger brother, Stevie (Christian Bale). Verloc presides over a small group of anarchists who have ended up in London but have no real agenda; unbeknownst to them or his wife, he is actually an agent provocateur in the employ of the Russian government, which uses him to keep tabs on unfriendly exiles.

In a potent scene, Verloc’s boss at the embassy (English standup comic Eddie Izzard) orders him to “instigate a series of outrages” that will be blamed on the anarchists, the first of which is to be, as Conrad put it, an “assault upon time itself,” the bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.

But this potential public catastrophe instead turns more into a private tragedy for Verloc and his family. Following Conrad’s lead, Hampton closely scrutinizes the personal cost to the characters when the plot goes awry. In his folly, Verloc has Stevie carry the bomb through Greenwich Park; the youngster trips, exploding the device, killing himself and leading to devastating consequences for Verloc and Winnie.

The hook for filming this story now is presumably the late-century upswing in terrorist acts some 100 years after the events that inspired the novel (an actual botched attempt at blowing up the Royal Observatory occurred in 1894), as if this would mean anything commercially. In fact, where the film excels, to the extent that it does, is in illuminating the massive self-delusion, deceit and wrong-headedness of Verloc and, by extension, of terrorists in general, who simply discount or entirely block out the terrible consequences of their actions in the name of some greater cause.

But the story’s presumed relevance, and skill at portraying the quotidian details of its principals’ lives, are not enough to give the picture more than passing urgency. Most scenes play out on a level somewhere between moderate interest and tedium, engaging the attention up to a point due to the sorrowfully strange drama unfolding but never pulling viewer involvement deeply in. It’s not enough.

As adapter and director, Hampton is clearly in tune with his material, but doesn’t sufficiently convince the audience why it should care about what’s onscreen. With the considerable help of production designer Caroline Amies, costume designer Anushia Nieradzik and lenser Denis Lenoir, he has created a London that is suffocatingly dank and dark, while Philip Glass, hardly the first composer one would think of for an English Victorian piece, contributes a score of moderate pleasures and surprises.

Hoskins, who originated the project as a possible directorial venture, is pretty close to ideal as Verloc. Arquette, playing with an English accent, is OK as his wife. Comic thesp Jim Broadbent gets good mileage out of his role as the chief police inspector on the case, while Gerard Depardieu blends in acceptably as a duplicitous anarchist. An unbilled Robin Williams delivers a chilling turn as a nihilistic bomb supplier known only as the Professor.

Joseph Conrad's the Secret Agent

British

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Heyman/Hoskins production in association with Capitol Films. Produced by Norma Heyman. Executive producer, Bob Hoskins. Co-producer, Joyce Herlihy. Directed, written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Joseph Conrad.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Denis Lenoir; editor, George Akers; music, Philip Glass; production design, Caroline Amies; art direction, Frank Walsh; costume design, Anushia Nieradzik; sound (Dolby), Peter Lindsay; assistant director, Guy Travers; casting, Janey Fothergill. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 10, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Verloc - Bob Hoskins
Winnie - Patricia Arquette
Ossipon - Gerard Depardieu
Professor - George Spelvin
Chief Inspector Heat - Jim Broadbent
Stevie - Christian Bale
Vladimir - Eddie Izzard
Winnie's Mother - Elizabeth Spriggs
The Driver - Peter Vaughan
The Assistant Commissioner - Julian Wadham
The Professor - Robin Williams

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