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Audiences may come to this film expecting the conventional pleasures of a spy thriller – excitement, tension, suspense – along with the additional values associated with the very best of the genre: character nuance, emotional complexity, plausible human dilemma. The Operative utterly defeats all of these hopes, chiefly in being at all times extremely boring.
The director is Israeli film-maker Yuval Adler, whose drama Bethlehem played in Berlin six years ago. He here presides over a stolid pace and frowningly concentrated line readings. But there is bafflingly little that’s exciting or even all that interesting in the story being told, and the performances themselves are opaque and disengaged.
Martin Freeman plays Thomas, a British Jewish man in Germany running a section of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. He has recruited a new operative, played by Diane Kruger with her usual crisp fluency in German and French, who is very suitable for the job because of her rootlessless – detached from her family, no romantic ties, no close friends. He gets her into Teheran as a teacher of English, despite the fact that she has no Farsi. (Wait – wouldn’t a fake or indeed a real EFL teacher speak the local language? Wouldn’t that draw attention?)
Her task is to make contact with a local manager of an electronics firm, supplying hi-tech equipment to the Iranian military. Her job will be to assist in ensuring that this equipment is sabotaged or bugged. She is supposed merely to teach him English, but winds up having an affair with her victim in a way that her Mossad handlers did not expect; her intimacy is very important in the operative gaining access to this man’s electronics firm. And what was supposed to happen if she didn’t succeed in seducing him, or even inducing him to take English lessons?
And then, while this situation continues, somehow dull and melodramatic simultaneously. she has to pose as someone else – a completely different cover identity! – a bogus archaeologist, driving specially sabotaged/bugged equipment over the border into Iran from Turkey, a chaotic yet anti-climactic episode which results in her being sexually molested.
Eventually all this is to lead to a confrontation between Kruger’s character and her employers – but this too is a dramatic non-event. The performances of Kruger and Freeman are very uncertain and unconvincing; this becomes even more of a problem because we are supposed to believe in some sort of friendship between them, or even more than friendship.
The drama itself is revealed in flashback, as Thomas is himself debriefed by his own handlers, but this does not give any perspective on the story, or breathe any life into it. As for Kruger’s spy, the only other person of great importance to her is supposedly her father – but exasperatingly, this relationship remains off camera. At the end of this long, long story you feel like you have boarded a roller-coaster ride at a funfair that only chugs along at ground-level: very slowly.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Operative review – deep-cover spy thriller that forgets the thrills | Berlin film festival 2019