As the old saying goes, truth is always stranger than fiction, and indeed there are true stories so strange that they cannot be fully expressed with familiar storytelling modes. Such is the case with “Rogue Agent,” a film that unfolds as a spy thriller and romantic drama before taking a left turn into the sordid world of con artistry.
For British viewers, the sordid story of Robert Freegard is probably well known. The story will even sound familiar to American viewers, thanks to Netflix’s true-crime series “The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman.” But the two projects take completely different approaches. Although the two start at the same point, when Freegard posed as an MI5 agent fighting the IRA behind the bar of a Shropshire pub, “Rogue Agent” proceeds linearly from there, while “The Puppet Master” goes back and through Freegard’s life of coercion and control, achieving a much weirder and creepier effect.
Directed by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, who directed the hit BBC series ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’, ‘Rogue Agent’ is based on the article ‘Chasing Agent Freegard’ by Michael Bronner. Lawn and Patterson collaborated on the script, a straightforward retelling of events, focusing on one of the many victims Freegard left in his wake. The movie itself has a rather odd pacing and can’t quite land on one tone, going from spy flick to rom-com to tearful story of escapism and empowerment.
Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a litigation attorney, is a powerful businesswoman who meets Robert Freegard (James Norton), under the surname Hansen, while working or posing as a car salesman. luxury. Alice is smart and does background checks on Robert, though her fears about his mysterious past are allayed when he reveals he’s an MI5 spy. It’s a story he told a few college boys several years earlier, enlisting them as “independent spies” in the fight against the Irish Republican Army, shackling them for almost a decade in a kind of conspiratorial cosplay.
Alice’s intuition, along with her private detective, prevails, but not after she starts a business with him and makes plans for the future. Robert rejects her, knowing she’s onto him, and he takes what he can and splits up for the next victim. But Alice decides to pursue it, and the slow-burn thriller turns into something more like a Lifetime movie.
If “Rogue Agent” is convincing, it’s thanks to Arterton, who always held the screen with ease. The script doesn’t give her much to work with as a woman emerging from the fog of manipulation, gaslighting and betrayal, but it sells Alice’s devastation hardening into determination.
It’s unfair to compare “Rogue Agent” to “The Puppet Master,” but it can’t be overemphasized that the flashback structure of “The Puppet Master” gave this docuseries a sense of foreboding and sickening unease, as Freegard’s many acts of brainwashing and manipulation over the years happen simultaneously in the story. “Rogue Agent” is handicapped by the timelines of Bronner’s article, and a text epilogue only briefly mentions “further allegations of fraud and deception”, a wild understatement, but Lawn and Patterson never experience the timelines or story structure to create suspense. The meandering pace also saps the story with suspense and titillation.
In the saturated market for true crime content, a simple “woman in peril” story is no longer enough to hold our interest. Perhaps the lustful endings of Freegard’s greatest hits are best left to non-fiction projects, but even with the liberties of narrative adaptation, Lawn and Patterson leave the psychological and emotional depths of this story unexplored. In her performance, Arterton extracts some truths as a woman despised and in search of redemption, but the rest of “Rogue Agent” leaves something to be desired and more answers to be sought.
2 stars (out of 4)
No MPAA rating
How to watch: In theaters and on AMC+ Friday