|Dalby, Harry and Jean ready for action
Well, after months - and I mean months - of hype and pre-publicity, the new tv adaptation of Len Deighton's The Ipcress File has broadcast its first two episodes on commercial channel ITV in the UK (and all six episodes made available on ITVhub streaming).
And the verdict from this viewer is ... it's pretty good. Indeed, very good. An adaptation worthy of the book.
Sure, it's not the original Michael Caine film of the same name, and that's probably a good thing, so strong is the cultural imprinting of that performance on the British viewing public. If you remember that, then this new series - and the new Harry Palmer portrayed by Joe Cole - provides six hours of very entertaining, stylish, engrossing and believable drama.
(I'm conscious that there may be readers of this blog in countries outside of the UK who haven't seen the series yet, so any comments below about how I viewed the series will be as spoiler-free as possible.)
Here are my top take-aways from having watched all six episodes:
Joe Cole is not Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, and that's fine
Young British actor Cole gives a good performance throughout and, noticeably, it improves over the series, reflecting the fact that each scene and episode was filmed by director James Watkins in sequence. So you can see the acting chemistry, and the relationships between the main characters, blossom, to a degree.
Cole maintains the surly disdain for authority and the chippy laddishness of the original unnamed spy from the book, and also from Caine's performance, but this is overall a more subtle Harry Palmer, one focused more on drama than on periodic dips into subtle comedy. The style of quips and one lines made famous in the first film are still there, but overall this is a more serious performance, reflecting the nature of the adaption. Like Caine, he's not action super spy, and the fighting sequence are befitting of a made who rarely shoots and relies on his wit and insight, than his fists.
It's more of a proper thriller than the film
Two advantages producers Will Clarke, Andy Mayson and Sandy Lieberson had which original producer Harry Saltzman did not: budget, and time. It's evident from the quality of the set design, the overseas locations (Croatia standing in for Lebanon scenes), the length of the production and the quality of the scriptwriting that producers had space to let the original - very complicated - story breathe, and unfold.
The overall tone is more of a crime thriller, and the music is much more sombre and low key in the series than in the film, where John Barry's score was almost one of the main characters.
The script by John Hodge is pretty tight, and each episode is brought skillfully to a level of tension and denouement which allows the tension for the viewer to be well-paced right up to the 'reveal' in the final episode, which is a departure from the book (and an interesting one at that).
It's an adaptation from the original book, not an exercise in verismillitude
Some reviewers and viewers have complained that it's not like the original movie. Other reviewers and viewers feel that the script veered too far from the original book and that the ending felt forced. I don't sit in either camp.
There was enough from the original book - indeed, key scenes in Lebanon and Tokwe island that were missing from the original film were back in the tv series - to make it authentic enough and a tribute to the original books.
Indeed, the quality of the script was such that the convoluted - indeed, often confusing - nature of the exposition and plot in the original books (noted by a number of columnists) is to a degree replicated. The viewer is skillfully guided by the actors and the director through scenes to a place where he or she may think they have understood one character's relationship to the other, only for the next episode to prove them wrong.
A thriller over six episodes needs to keep the viewer on their toes, and this series does it well.
Jean Courtney's expanded role works well enough, and Boynton fits the part
Lucy Boynton's character Jean Courtney is one example of where producers and script writers have tampered with the original, largely one suspects to fit in with modern mores and the need for a strong female lead character. Whereas in the book she's an assistant at W.O.O.C.(P)., in the TV series she's a full agent, and arguably as crucial to the plot development as is Harry Palmer. But in the context of the series, it works, I believe.
Boynton's Jean is posh, guarded, ambitious and a tough cookie, and has a significantly greater amount of screen time than her film counterpart. Boynton plays her as icy cold, slightly stiff - perhaps too stiff at times - but like Joe Cole's Palmer, her portrayal seems to fit well with the overall more serious tone of the series. As a character, too, there's scope for further development.
Tom Hollander's Dalby is excellent
No surprise, really - he's a great actor. Stepping into the shoes of Nigel Green's portrayal of the original Dalby from the film could have been a poisoned chalice, but Hollander's portrayal is altogether more complete, I think, and reflective of what's in the book.
Sure, he plays up the old school tie elements, the chumminess of Whitehall at the time, which works well as a source of tension with Harry Palmer, particularly in the early scenes where Dalby has Palmer tied on a string, metaphorically speaking.
But you can also see a real relationship between the two develop over the six episodes, as trust builds and any early scepticism about Palmer's shady past is moved beyond. Indeed, by the end, there's a degree of mutual respect between the two, which contrasts sharply with how the original film ended.
Ashley Thomas' Maddox adds a new layer of complexity
The CIA underhand and disguised involvement in Harry's disappearance and subsequent torture by the practitioners of the IPCRESS system was part of the original book, but the role of the Americans as the real 'power behind the file' across the series is really amped up as the programme develops.
The flirtatious entrapment of Jean by Maddox, and his ambiguous relationship with the American General Cathcart, who's in charge of the development of the US neutron bomb which Harry and Jean witness on Tokwe, leave one as a viewer wondering quite what his deal is - is he for real, is he trustworthy, is he a traitor, or is he one of the heroes? That's the sign of a good thriller - uncertainty, until the final resolution in episode six.
There is scope for more
All the key characters make it to the end intact, and give the appearance of a 'team' being forged at W.O.O.C.(P). This clearly gives the producers, and scriptwriters, an opening to move onto further Harry Palmer stories - either Funeral in Berlin, Horse Under Water (never filmed), Billion Dollar Brain or An Expensive Place to Die - or to branch off into original material (the arguably more riskier move).
Clearly, this will be dependent upon the success of the series, and the response from commercial advertisers on TV and on streaming, but if it's a hit - and the signs are it could be - then the foundations are good for further development, particularly in characters.
Joe Cole's portrayal has been great, terrible, or so-so, depending on which reviewer you read. But I think he's a competent actor, and no fool. He was clearly aware of Caine's performance and adopted subtle nods to it in his own (the glasses, for one), but he's done enough to make his own version of Harry Palmer stand on its own two feet.
The nods to the original film show producers recognised they're handling a classic
The producers - including executive producer Steven Saltzman, son of Harry Saltzman, the original producer - could have been lazy and just remade the film. They didn't do that, and have tried to embellish the original plot in the book in order to create enough material for a six hour series.
But they've equally not tried to paint over the original colour. They kept key elements of the plot intact; the characters, while subtly different, can still trace a line back to the book and the films (the potrayals of Chilcott-Oates and office harridan Alice, for example); and the relish with which the look and feel of sixties Berlin, London and Lebanon were portrayed in great detail shows they were cognisant of what had gone before.
The nods to the original film were sufficient and subtle enough to provide a hat-tip to the original, without ever descending into pastiche. The frequent use of Dutch angles - or wonky camera work, according to dissatisfied critics - was reminiscent of Otto Heller's original cinematography, but also generally worked to give the series a distinct visual style.
The chippy by-play and understated romantic attachment between Harry and Jean is playfully understated and their relationship is believably difficult, but also warm.
David Dencick's Colonel Stok was not as bombastic as Oskar Homolka's
This was the one character that jarred a little, so different was it from the book, plus the fact that the character only really cemented itself into our minds in Funeral in Berlin. The character in the tv series is still duplicitous and as flirtatiously ambivalent about the Cold War as only the most zealous of Cold Warriors can afford to be, and the portrayal is fine.
Indeed, like Harry Palmer, his character and his relationship to the bespectacled spy also has more time to be expounded - the relationship in London which ends in tragedy is a new twist - and that adds something.
I guess, however, that so iconic was the original back and forth repartee between Homolka and Caine that it's difficult as a viewer to cut through that. But, if there's a Funeral in Berlin adaptation, then there's scope for this to develop I guess.
Bringing in Harry's backstory made sense
His black market past in Berlin is only ever alluded to in the books, and in the film, but as a way of understanding the character's predicament, his relationship to Dalby, and his development throughout the series, it makes perfect sense.
Palmer is a man in a bind, with a way out, and a route to redemption and to prove himself, not just as a man but as a working class spy in a world still ridden by class who - by the end of the series - proves his capability as a spy. It's a cornerstone of the character and essential to making him believable.
So, what did other readers make of the series, if you've already seen it or are watching it? Do share your thoughts below (but keep any spoilers to a minimum if you can).