Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent
Directed by Christopher Hampton. Starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Christian Bale. (1996, R, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 20, 1996
Conspicuously missing from the ranks of 19th- and early 20th-century authors rushed to the screen by a suddenly Mad About Classix Hollywood is Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad. Christopher Hampton's (Carrington) faithfully dark-hearted take on The Secret Agent explains why. This razor-edged moral critique of the late 1880s London terrorist underground seethes with an unforgiving vision more akin to Abel Ferrara than the Dresden-China exquisiteness of the Austen, Wharton, James, and Forster works favored by high-toned revivalists. Though written in 1907, The Secret Agent is modern to its icy core, requiring little if any updating by writer-director Hampton. Bob Hoskins is Verloc, a nondescript Soho shopkeeper who dabbles in revolutionary socialism and works on retainers as a two-bit spy for the Russian government. It's a comfy little gig. The jobs come years apart and seldom involve much risk for him or his family, which consists of young wife Winnie (Arquette) and her sweet-natured retarded brother, Stevie (Bale). But eventually, Verloc's bosses at the embassy decide he needs to become more of a true agent-provocateur. He's ordered to commit an act of “gratuitous and entirely inexplicable” violence to trigger a police crackdown that will put the proletarian rabble in a more rouse-able mood. That turns out to be an attempted dynamiting of the Greenwich Observatory, during which Stevie is accidentally killed. The boy's grisly death shatters the peace of Verloc and Winnie's lives and sets in motion a deterministic engine of justice that blindly sweeps the guilty and semi-innocent alike into its maw. The Secret Agent is, in some ways, a dark twin to Michael Collins. In contrast to that film, it plunges the culture of political violence into a bath of acid and strips away all traces of sentimentality, revealing a bare skeleton of moral nihilism. As Conrad observed often in his work, the deliberate rejection of pity, empathy, and order (aka evil) is seductive because of the total freedom it offers. The character who embodies this principle in The Secret Agent is a Mephistophelian bombmaker called The Professor, played with startling brilliance by an uncredited Robin Williams. In another bit of inspired against-type casting, Gerard Depardieu (lean and vulpine after major weight loss) shines as a faux-radical gigolo type with designs on Winnie. As you've surely gleaned by now, The Secret Agent is the farthest thing from another lukewarm cube of Merchant-Ivory aspic. Instead it's an utterly contemporary film that forces -- and rewards -- hard reflection on the nature of truth, goodness, and identity. And if you're as sick as I am of wan little comedies of manners and bloodless satire about repressed haute-bourgeois Brits, it may be just your cup of tea.