Here’s a free tip to the makers of contemporary spy thrillers: Avoid references to John le Carré. The lesson was sadly ignored by the makers of Spider in the Web, starring Ben Kingsley as an aging Mossad agent. At one point in the film, there’s an extended discussion about the book The Constant Gardener, and the unfortunate result is that you wind up thinking how much more you’d prefer to be rereading that contemporary classic than watching this tedious exercise.
It’s no fault of Kingsley, who acts in a prodigious amount of films these days and manages to be compelling in every one of them. Here, the knighted actor (as he’s so intent on reminding you at every opportunity) plays Adereth, who would bear comparisons to George Smiley except that he’s more stylish and action-oriented. The veteran agent is obviously nearing the end of his career, but he’s not going gently into that good night, resisting the efforts of his superiors who want him to retire and suspect he’s putting false information into his intelligence reports to make himself look better.
Tinker tailor soldier snooze.
The agency dispatches a younger operative, Daniel (Israeli actor Itay Tiran, The Debt), to watch over Adereth as he poses as a Belgian antiques dealer and investigates a company that may be providing chemical weapons to Syria. Complicating their strained working relationship is the fact that Daniel is the son of Adereth’s former colleague, who had once inscribed a photograph to Adereth with the wish that he look after his son when he’s gone.
As is usual with spy thrillers, the storyline defies comprehension, with double-crosses and secret identities infusing a labyrinthine tale of intrigue that only the most attentive viewers will be able to follow. The problem is that their attention spans may prove limited since the screenplay by Gidon Maron and Emmanuel Nacchae is short on crisply plotted action and long on ruminative discussions that are meant to provide character development and philosophical examinations of the current state of the world but mainly provide long stretches to nod off. You’ll be particularly tempted to doze during Adereth’s explication of the virtue of a good pea soup.
The saving grace is Kingsley, who can do this sort of thing in his sleep but never gives the appearance that he’s doing so. Although he can be prone to hamminess, the actor here delivers a beautifully modulated and restrained turn that is consistently mesmerizing. A prime example is a scene in which Adereth is informed of the death of a former source with whom he clearly once had a more than friendly relationship. Kingsley conveys shocked anguish with the subtlest of gestures and expressions and is all the more moving for it. It’s also appropriate for a character who has spent his life in a career that requires him to hide his feelings.
Tiran delivers solid support as the conflicted Daniel, although the very fit actor is forced to play so many scenes in which his character vigorously exercises that you begin wondering if you’re watching a spy thriller or training video. Monica Bellucci provides some much needed alluring femininity among the otherwise very macho proceedings, managing the difficult task of being convincing as Kingsley’s love interest even while her character stretches credulity in numerous other ways. And Hilde Van Mieghem delivers a memorable turn in her brief role as an aged hotel owner who knows her way around the world of espionage.
Director Eran Riklis, who explored similar if more erotically charged territory in his 2017 film Shelter, has done fine work in such Israeli movies as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride. But his subtle, contemplative style is ill-suited to this sort of material, which demands, if not James Bond or Mission Impossible-style fireworks, at least snappy pacing.
The film does benefit, however, from Richard Van Oosterhout’s handsome cinematography and the extensive use of Antwerp and Flanders, which mark a refreshing change from the familiar, overexposed European locales that are usually showcased in thrillers of this type.
Production: Film Constellation, United King Films, Topia Communications, Eran Riklis Productions
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Monica Bellucci, Itay Tiran, Itzik Cohen, Filip Peeters, Hilde Van Mieghem
Director: Eran Riklis
Screenwriters: Gidon Maron, Emmanuel Naccache
Producers: Michael Sharfstein, Jacqueline de Goeij, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Eyal Edery, Eran Riklis, Sabine Brian, Ronald Versteeg
Executive producers: Ira Riklis, Fabien Westerhoff, Schaul Scherzer, Dana Lustig
Director of photography: Richard Van Oosterhout
Production designer: Merijn Sep
Editor: Jessica de Koning
Composer: Jonathan Riklis
Costume designer: Charlotte Willems
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee, Leonie Luttik, Eveline Devriendt