Based on the 1965 Michael Caine espionage thriller of the same name, “The Ipcress File” on AMC+ (by way of ITV in the U.K.) keeps the Cold War action set in the early 1960s. Harry Palmer is a young Brit with clever instincts but not much spy experience, and he gets roped into a saga that involves a kidnapped nuclear scientist, pushy American interests and a brainwashing scheme that could lead to an assassination. Witty and occasionally terrifying, the series moves at a good clip and is stylish — it retains those thick-framed eyeglasses that are so iconic to Caine’s original performance.
In the ‘65 film (adapted from Len Deighton’s 1962 novel), Harry Palmer emerged onto the pop-cultural landscape as the anti-James Bond, and this six-episode version sticks to that approach with sleepy-eyed actor Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”) stepping into the Caine role. He’s a regular bloke with a smuggler’s talents, which lands him behind bars after he’s busted for running booze while serving as an army corporal stationed in Germany.
But his craftiness and knowledge of the landscape beyond the Berlin Wall make him useful to the task at hand — retrieving a kidnapped nuclear physicist — at least as far as certain parties within British intelligence (neither MI5 nor MI6, but some hush-hush operation under the Ministry of Defense) are concerned. So Harry is sprung from prison and suddenly he’s a spy, working alongside a young woman named Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton), an icy blonde who has far more experience in all things espionage.
Harry and Jean are a study in opposites — he’s the son of a dock worker who gets by on his wits; she’s the exceedingly smart, wildly beautiful daughter of a posh somebody-or-other. They begin as wary compatriots, only slowly coming to appreciate one another’s skills once their straightforward mission becomes exceedingly messy.
What you see is what you get with Harry, which is at odds with everyone else around him — even his colleagues. Maybe especially his colleagues.
Jean’s role has been beefed up considerably from the film, but she remains a cipher. She has a fiance who is clueless about her real job, and yet ultimately her spy skills aren’t sharp enough to fool the man she intends to marry. It’s unclear if the marriage was intended as part of her cover or something she actually wanted or simply the next inevitable step for a woman of her time. Maybe it’s everything all at once, but we’re never given a glimpse into her true feelings. She’s an expert at maintaining a mask. But how did she get recruited? And how did she get so good, so fast? Where does she find the time to maintain her exquisite hair and makeup and wardrobe when dirtier, nastier doings are required of her as well? Who knows.
We get more back story when it comes to Harry and Jean’s boss, a seasoned intelligence man named Major Dalby (Tom Hollander) who has some inconvenient emotional entanglements that compromise the job at hand — and the Soviets are keen to exploit that. Hollander is quite good, underplaying everything. There’s more going on here than meets the eye. Everyone’s a potential mark.
The Americans are in the mix as well as allies, but also as yet another of the story’s villains. It’s a wonderfully acidic take that, not-inaccurately, portrays America as the Land of the Glib. Most intriguingly, this comes in the form of a CIA agent named Paul Maddox (played by British actor Ashley Thomas, convincingly pulling off an American accent) who is smooth and solid and it’s entirely unclear where his loyalties lie.
Paul is Black, which (as he notes himself) makes him a tokenized presence among intelligence officers of this era. It’s a role that almost feels like a nod to “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” Chicagoan Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel (and later 1973 film) that was loosely inspired by his own less-than-happy experiences as one of the few Black people to work for a U.S. intelligence agency. Even when it comes to matters of intelligence, racism is always there. “The Ipcress File” swerves away from any narrative ponderings on this front, mostly because it’s a story of the British, not the Americans, but it also suggests there might be something there for other TV writers to explore in a different series altogether.
Ultimately, as their quest to track down the nuclear scientist progresses, Harry, Jean and Dalby find the web is far more tangled than they first suspected. There’s a brainwashing experiment at the heart of it all — that so-called Ipcress file — that can turn any unsuspecting soul into an assassin, and poor Harry gets a firsthand look at exactly what that entails. These scenes are at odds, tonally, with the earlier portions of the season and that’s not a bad thing: Brainwashing should be disturbing. But it’s a change of pace from the mostly spry approach that defines the early episodes.
I’m always going to prefer these kinds of small-bore spy stories to big explosion-filled exercises that you get with the “Bond” films or “The Gray Man,” coming on Netflix later this summer starring Ryan Gosling. It’s a choice between maximalism and minimalism and the latter always seems more interesting from a storytelling standpoint. And frankly, “The Ipcress File” (written by John Hodge of “Trainspotting” fame and directed by James Watkins) proves the stakes can feel high even when the testosterone is kept mostly in check (Harry really doesn’t like killing people) and everything isn’t going boom every other minute.
Where does “The Ipcress File” find its kicks? By looking at how people’s weaknesses can be exploited; that’s more of a spy’s job than anything. But also: It’s men driven by their own personal need for revenge. The class politics are overt and very English and very spiky. And frankly, the impending promise of a plutonium bomb going off — strictly in testing circumstances, of course, but still — is enough to put you on edge. The series looks expensive without being flashy or too visually ambitious. Set pieces are kept relatively small and simple, with a focus on the details and production design, and it works. The action is in the ideas and the ever-shifting dynamics.
Cole is a fascinating choice to carry the show. He has Michael Caine’s youthful air of insouciance, but with the way his features are arranged, he also has the appearance of a nobody. A guy who’s easy to overlook. That actually comes in handy when you’re a spy: Blend in and don’t draw attention to yourself. It’s an intricately plotted series that doesn’t glamorize spy work so much as make clear just how awful it can be. The betrayals will always get you in the end.
“The Ipcress File” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: AMC+
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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