The story of Kim Philby is perhaps too good to make up. The British spy, a double agent for Moscow, operated at the highest levels of the intelligence community; his ability to disseminate information to the Soviet Union, to which he eventually defected, is proof, perhaps, of the power of personal charm and erudition to cover over what’s lying in plain sight.
That’s the powerfully told story of “A Spy Among Friends,” which streamed on ITVX in the United Kingdom last year and which now arrives on nascent streamer MGM+. Guy Pearce plays Philby, who has at the series’ outset been a valued Soviet source for many years; likely his closest friend in tradecraft, Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), must get a confession from him. We see the pair’s relationship over time in layered flashbacks, adding context and understanding to Elliott’s failure to nail down Philby.
The story is adapted by Alexander Cary from Ben Macintyre’s novel, which embroiders on the real-life Philby and Elliott’s tale; it’s rather a clever thing to use likely the most infamous real-life British espionage scandal as the backbone of a John Le Carré-esque tale. The story is told through Elliott’s recollections: Anna Maxwell Martin plays a fictional interrogator who walks through the story of Elliott and Philby’s relationship, and who brings a crystalline level of distrust and disdain to her work. Among the pleasures of “A Spy Among Friends” is the spectacle of Elliott’s performing for the woman scrutinizing him, adding shading and dimension to his memories.
For what passed between Philby and Elliott is perhaps unknowable even to the men themselves — how, indeed, could a spy as experienced as Elliott let Philby slip away? Part of it, “A Spy Among Friends” argues, is the dynamic nodded at by the title: The clubby and parochial world of intelligence ran on social connections, befitting a culture undergirded by endless unwritten codes of what is socially appropriate.
Pearce’s performance is suitably charming, and among the small satisfactions of this series is discovering just how hollow that charm is: I was put in mind of his work in the 2011 limited series “Mildred Pierce,” in which he played a preening swain. But it’s Lewis — this time playing the spy who has to crack a double agent’s exterior, in a satisfying reversal of the “Homeland” formula — who’s at the heart of things. And his journey to understand why he missed what he missed, and what his relationship with a man operating against their shared nation could possibly have meant in retrospect, is an elegantly told one. It’s conveyed with slight shifts in Lewis’ bearing, a touch of sadness entering his voice. It’s a role Lewis plays beautifully — and one whose enigmatic qualities speak to the eternal power of spy stories.
“A Spy Among Friends” premieres Sunday, March 12 on MGM+.