TV Review: A Spy Among Friends

Damian Lewis and Anna Maxwell Martin deliver compelling performances but the six episodes of A Spy Among Friends prove somewhat dense

“Am I under arrest? As my wife has booked tickets for the theatre tonight”

A Spy Among Friends delivers a blinder of a killer punch right with its final breath, a moment of daring that left me seriously impressed (perhaps naively so, but still…). Truth be told though, the rest of this six-parter had fallen into the solid-rather-than-spectacular category for me, Alex Cary’s adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s book essentially a largely familiar retreading of Cold War espionage shenanigans.

It focuses on Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), a MI6 intelligence officer who is blindsided by the revelation that best pal Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) is damn dirty spy for the Soviets. Or is he? As Elliott is tasked with questioning Philby to get at the truth of his betrayal, MI5 agent Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin) is brought in to interrogate Elliott to explore how honest Elliott is being. Plus the CIA are hovering in the background. 

It’s a different angle on the Cambridge Five but I’m not sure it is one that repays quite the level of detail it gets here. Densely packed layers of intrigue are introduced throughout, as spy spies on spy spies on spy, which undoubtedly increases the suspicion and tension. But it also brings a weightiness and complexity which means there is too little energy in the storytelling, as characters are frequently left explaining the plot to each other (and thus to us).

The acting is strong, Lewis and Pearce give us different shades of ambiguousness trustworthiness, wrapped in upper-class hauteur. And Maxwell Martin’s Lily, with her Durham accent, represents a whole other world of potential progress as a working class woman with a black husband (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr doing much with little screentime). The marvellous Anastasia Hille stands out in the packed ensemble too.

If you’re more familiar with the history than I, then the surprise revelation might indeed not be a surprise for you but on top of that, for me, its the audacity of the writing in suggesting the hollowness of the brave new world that has been suggested throughout that stunned, a recognition that English class structures are built to last. Finely done then, but lacking that magic spark. 

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