By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — “The Ipcress File,” director Sidney J. Furie’s 1965 adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 espionage novel, provided Michael Caine with one of his signature roles as British operative Harry Palmer and won BAFTA’s Best Film award.
According to the British Film Institute, moreover, it ranks among the U.K.’s top 100 movies of all time.
Six decades later, ITV has re-worked Deighton’s book into a limited-series drama. Having debuted on that network in March, the six-episode program will premiere on AMC+ Thursday, May 19. Subsequent installments will be released Thursdays through June 23.
Despite its stylish presentation and admirably restrained tone, the show — penned by veteran Scottish screenwriter John Hodge and directed by James Watkins — goes egregiously astray where the dignity of human life is concerned. While the passage in which this lapse is contained is peripheral to the central plot, it debars recommendation for viewers of any age.
Hodge creates a new backstory for Palmer (Joe Cole). When the action begins, in 1963, he’s a British army corporal serving in West Berlin. As an enterprising and not overly-moral soldier, however, Palmer has ambitions that reach well beyond his restricted official capabilities. In fact, he’s the front man of an operation that smuggles black-market goods into East Germany.
Arrested by his superiors, Palmer is confined at Colchester Military Prison. Yet his bleak prospects improve considerably once the denizens of a spy network known as War Office Operational Communications (WOOC) discover he’s connected to a shadowy figure they call Housemartin (Urs Rechn).
Besides his involvement with Palmer’s underground ring, Housemartin is suspected of having kidnapped Professor Dawson (Matthew Steer), a physicist who had been developing a new class of nuclear weapons. Working outside such official government channels as MI-5 and -6, WOOC chief Maj. Dalby (Tom Hollander) recruits Harry to help locate Housemartin.
At first glance, “The Ipcress File” would seem to have appeal for a broad swath of grown viewers. It succeeds both in evoking the Cold-War era in which it’s set and in reminding its audience of the enduring threat of atomic conflict facing the contemporary world.
Through the first three hourlong episodes reviewed, the series showcases some gunplay, but the violence is far from excessive. Additionally, the dialogue is free of vulgarity and there’s no sexual content or nudity on display. But the program founders ethically via a digression that might easily have been avoided.
As with many similar narratives, “The Ipcress File” takes in a wide range of characters working for multiple nations. Among them is the top Soviet agent on the scene, Col. Gregor Stok (David Dencik), who naturally becomes a person of interest to WOOC.
In the course of interviewing Stok’s English girlfriend, Natalie Lewis (Gaby French), in an effort to ascertain his whereabouts, WOOC personnel discover that Lewis is pregnant and wants to have an abortion. She eventually obtains one, with consequences even more tragic than those inherent in every such procedure.
This subsidiary plotline seems to have been included simply so that the show’s producers could make a point. Thus WOOC operative Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton) sums up Lewis’ situation in stark terms: “She was alone. There was no one she could trust. Can you imagine what it was like to be that woman?”
Notably, the fate of Lewis’ unborn child is not a factor in the discussion.
By needlessly incorporating such one-sided rhetoric into his script, Hodge puts this latest iteration of a well-regarded property off-limits for TV fans committed to the cause of life. That’s a shame because the more essential elements of this production would otherwise exert considerable attraction for them.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.