BRITISH actor Tom Hughes has received acclamation of late as the “new” Benedict Cumberbatch.
Those are big shoes to fill.
However in a classy little spy thriller called The Game, you begin to understand why.
The “game” in The Game is a cat-and-mouse battle of wits between British agents and the KGB in London in 1971.
Hughes plays Joe Lambe, an enigmatic and beautiful M15 agent who has no trouble bedding women for information – “it takes a whore to catch a whore,” one Russian agent says in a showdown with Lambe.
We meet Lambe in Poland, about to defect because of a woman. It’s a trap; his lover is killed by a nasty agent called Odin and M15 sacrifices three foreign agents to get Joe back from the KGB.
Fast forward a year. Lambe should be damaged goods. He’s certainly haunted by what happened in Poland.
But the head of M15, known only as “Daddy” (Brian Cox) spills a tale that Lambe was a double agent pretending to defect to plant misinformation.
There’s a lovely scene between them where Daddy explains his reasons for protecting the young officer. While he doesn’t trust Joe not to betray his country, he knows Joe will now never betray him.
However, while he’s the hero, Joe’s loyalties remain shadowy. In one scene while reciting “yesterday upon the stair I met a man who wasn’t there” to test a recording device, Joe sees himself in a mirror. He stares as though not knowing this person.
Joe interrogates a possible Soviet defector, a former KGB colonel called Arkady (Marcel Lures) who reveals the Soviets plan a mission on British soil called “Operation Glass”.
What is it? He doesn’t know, but warns, “Years from now the story of British and Russian espionage will be divided into before and after this moment”.
A cash-strapped M15 sets up a special team to unravel Operation Glass, based on messages Arkady passes on to activate sleeper agents.
When it becomes apparent that Odin is involved, the mission becomes personal for Joe. He wants revenge.
Fortunately at the moment his aims and MI5’s are the same.
Joe is teamed with police Special Branch liaison officer Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley).
The team also includes Daddy, mousy secretary Wendy (Chloe Pirrie), surveillance/tech expert Alan Montag (Jonathan Aris) and his wife, the terribly clever analyst Sarah (Victoria Hamilton) who seems to be an early sort of “profiler”.
Then there’s the head of counter-intelligence, mummy’s boy Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter) who wants Daddy’s job, maybe to please his nagging mother (Judy Parfitt).
It’s a wonderful cast and a beautifully shot six-episode series.
The Game is a deliciously cool thriller, absolutely gripping.
It draws us into a dangerous game indeed, especially when it’s obvious one of the team is a mole.
It’s atmospheric, moody and darkly compelling.
The “old-school” spy craft is intriguing. There are no mobile phones or computers but M15 does have “shadows” who follow people around, along with dead-drop mailboxes and mysterious newspaper ads. Tech guy Alan plants bugs in lamps in hotel rooms and then listens in from the next room.
As for Hughes; he certainly makes a seductive leading man; he’s not traditionally handsome but is strikingly beautiful, as one M16 officer points out. As Lambe he’s charismatic to watch with a restless, dangerous sort of quality, a true “brooding” hero.
For those badly missing Spooks, this rather delicious series will help ease the pain.
It certainly is one of the better series I’ve watched all year.
The Game is available on itunes Australia and on DVD.