By Jake Watt
20th November 2019

Almost by definition, films about spies can't be realistic. The sight of a group of nerds sitting in a room reading files and making notes or sitting, bored, in a car for hours, waiting for something to happen is enough to send anyone to the exit (with a few exceptions, like Tomas Alfredson's 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' and Yoon Jong-bin's 'The Spy Gone North'). As John le Carré once said, spying is waiting, and long hours of diligence and patience are punctuated by minutes of frenetic activity.

'The Operative', written and directed by Yuval Adler from Yiftach R. Atir's novel, 'The English Teacher', falls into this category - but that isn't a bad thing.

Rachel (Diane Kruger, 'In The Fade') has been recruited into the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and is working an undercover operation in Tehran under the guise of being an English and French teacher. Her British handler, Thomas (Martin Freeman, 'Ghost Stories'., 'Black Panther'), gave her specific instructions to get close to Farhad Razavi (Cas Anvar, 'Room', 'The Lie'), the head of an electronics company.


The goal is to get Razavi's company to import defective nuclear components which can then be used to track and determine Iran's nuclear intentions. However, once Rachel becomes romantically involved with Farhad, who is handsome, charming and honest, she drops off the grid.

Kicking off after a coded phone call, the narrative of the film plays out chronologically. Freeman and the Mossad handle the bulk of the exposition in the present tense, while past events are presented as long flashbacks, sometimes accompanied by Freeman's voiceover. Both storylines run closer together as the film progresses, until they eventually merge.

'The Operative' is a low-key realistic account of complex international espionage and intrigue, in the style that le Carré popularised, its characters fully realised humans living in a moral abyss, compromised in every aspect of the word. It's a realist antidote to the Manichean, good versus evil simplicities of 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Jason Bourne'.

Instead of employing double and triple-crosses, the story primarily focuses on loyalty and humanity. Rachel's antagonistic relationship with her colleagues in the Mossad indicates a fundamental compassion that is palpable throughout the film. At one point, Rachel is told that people in Iran "all have many secrets." It's a way of life there and, this drama implies, everywhere else too. The antidote to this situation is trust, which can ground relationships and solidify work situations.

'The Operative' is a low-key realistic account of complex international espionage and intrigue, in the style that le Carré popularised, it's characters fully realized humans living in a moral abyss, compromised in every aspect of the word.

The multilingual Kruger plays Rachel with nuance as an ambiguous but rather normal character who is not profoundly troubled. She is both intense and contained, which also has the advantage of allowing us to feel as though we've fully experienced the plot with her, with all the suspense and anguish that comes with a classic spy mission.

Freeman's Thomas proves to be somewhat ambivalent in his attitude toward the agent. Even though Rachel ends up going rogue, Thomas still has an obvious interest in her career to the point that he would risk his life if he had to. In essence, the story revolves around the protection of two moral people: Farhad, who Rachel must defend from her spymasters, and Rachel herself, via her former mentor, Thomas.

The weakness of the film is its devotion to the minutiae of Rachel's story. While there are a handful of brief action scenes, a lot of 'The Operative' looks at the small tasks that Rachel completes in Tehran on the Mossad's behalf, with no glimpse at the bigger picture. Plus, a good portion of the film follows the burgeoning romance between Rachel and Farhad as they go to nightclubs, his brother's wedding and so on. The cinematography is businesslike and unflashy. As a spy thriller, there is a lot of spying but very little thriller, and not much of a sense of momentum.

Still, if you're after a character-focused espionage drama with an emphasis on real people and human drama rather than a James Bond-style spy caper featuring indestructible action heroes, 'The Operative' is worth checking out.

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