Watch a trailer for A Spy Among Friends
The most high-profile launch of new streaming platform ITVX in the UK, A Spy Among Friends retells the well-known story of the Cambridge Five.
The spy gang consisting of Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross operated in the United Kingdom from the 1930s to the 1950s and has been well documented in TV and film, most notably the Cambridge Spies in 2003. Starring Samuel West, Toby Stephens and Tom Hollander.
The latest take on the story takes a different take on the story and builds the story around Kim Philby, played here by Memento and LA Confidential star Guy Pearce, and his friendship with Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Elliot.
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The main turning point of the story revolves around Philby’s refuge in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and the ramifications of the intelligence he has leaked over the past 30 years. The show examines whether there is a larger conspiracy within British intelligence than it might seem at first glance.
The series is based on Ben Macintyre’s 2014 nonfiction novel and is the third major adaptation of one of his works in 2022, following Operation Mincemeat and the BBC series SAS Rogue Heroes. This series is a far cry from the more flamboyant and whimsical SAS series made from the same fabric as the likes of Len Deighton and John le Carré.
Appropriately, Cambridge Five had a significant influence on le Carré works such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the series feels in a very similar vein to this work, both in tone and period setting.
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The cast is one of the main reasons to watch the series. Lewis and Pearce excel at capturing Elliot and Philby’s years of friendship, drawn from the 1940s to the 1960s flashbacks and the end of the relationship and its impact on each.
Elliot is a somewhat unreliable narrator, and his interrogations with fictional character Lily Thomas, played perfectly by Anna Maxwell Martin, show a different kind of questioning than we might be used to in Line of Duty.
We’ll never know exactly whose side Elliot is on and how devoted his loyalty is to Philby, which makes for a consistently engaging watch. Apart from the core staff, there are also impressive talents like Nicholas Rowe and Adrian Edmonson.
Focusing on listening to recordings of conversations between Elliot and Philby, adding Lily as an extra main character gives an extra layer to things. It also allows the series to comment on the role of women in intelligence in the 1960s with Lily, rather than holding herself back to her colleagues determined to see how widespread the leaks to Moscow were.
Footage of Thomas listening to the recordings can’t help but remember Gene Hackman from The Conversation. Lily’s relationship with her husband and her shyness to share information with her mirrors Elliot’s relationship with his wife and cleverly juxtaposes the two.
The show manages to handle time jumps largely well, but they do happen often, and so it’s a series that demands the full attention of the audience, even though minor changes in clothes and hair color reveal what period of Philby’s life we’re focusing on.
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Of course, while the tone of this one-of-a-kind series is naturally bleak, there is a dry sense of humor that is conveyed between the couple’s friendship. There’s also a particularly entertaining interlude featuring James Bond creator Ian Fleming and a waterproof tuxedo, an unforgettable plot tool in Goldfinger. The series also finds a place to refer to the Profumo incident, another scandal of the period.
With the series spanning several decades, the production design does a great job, particularly capturing 1960s London and Moscow, but all the locations shown, including Beirut, look terrific.
A Spy Among Friends is a series filled with standout performances that help to temper its sometimes sluggish pace. Lewis and Pearce, in particular, share the years of friendship the couple shared and the extraordinary chemistry that truly captures the memories.
The addition of new characters from the source material helps set this apart from other adaptations of the story, and the production design and costumes keep it engaging while still succeeding in capturing early ’60s London at the height of the Cold War. This is a series that will find a way to reinterpret our perspective on a highly publicized scandal and will surely please fans of the genre.
A Spy Among Friends airs on ITVX from December 8.