Starring as a woman unraveling while struggling to make sense of the deaths of her husband and son, Diane Kruger showed she could carry a movie in Fatih Akin’s In the Fade. But she needs more textured material than she’s given in this choppy espionage thriller that casts her as a Westerner making bold moves to disentangle herself and right a wrong after years of undercover Mossad activity, pulling in Martin Freeman as her former handler to help facilitate her exit. Writer-director Yuval Adler connects the dots of the convoluted plot with reasonable clarity, but The Operative only intermittently builds suspense.
The film is based on the novel The English Teacher, an insider spy-craft story by former Israeli intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher Atir. While the book explored the psychological pressure of living under an assumed identity and the capacity for agents to lose themselves, becoming unknowable, Adler’s screen adaptation achieves that complexity primarily in its crisscrossing back and forth in time, between the reappearance of the woman known as Rachel Currin (Kruger) and a dutiful recap of her history since being recruited to work for the Mossad.
Neither terrible nor terribly gripping.
It starts when Thomas Hirsch (Freeman), a British Jew based in Germany who was assigned as her handler, gets a cryptic phone call from Rachel after more than a year in which she’s remained off the grid and silent. That galvanizes a team of Israeli intelligence strategists anxious to bring the slippery operative back under their control, or shut her down should that prove impossible. Thomas is conflicted about his role in this, having developed feelings of loyalty and affection for her, but that bond is indicated in the script rather than deeply felt in the performances.
In order to second-guess what Rachel is thinking, Thomas provides a step-by-step account of her history with the organization, meaning he basically gets to spout nonstop exposition for a supervisor who doubtless could have read most of it in Rachel’s file.
Being single, and having lived a peripatetic childhood, she had no strong roots in any particular country but spoke multiple languages, making her an ideal recruit. After establishing her cover as an English and French teacher, Rachel is sent to Tehran, and while she’s nervous — Kruger lays on the apprehensive glances and fidgeting moves so thick, her secret is practically broadcast — she takes to the new role, frequently overstepping the bounds of her assignment.
Rachel is tasked with infiltrating an electronics company targeted by the Israelis as a means of selling defective nuclear components with tracking devices to the Iranian Secret Service. Her entrée is via handsome company scion Farhad Razavi (Cas Anvar), who introduces her to the unexpected freedoms available in Iran. “Being secretive is second nature in Tehran,” Farhad tells her. Rachel’s romantic involvement with him was not part of the Mossad plan, though, and as her missions grow more dangerous, she becomes disenchanted, feeling betrayed when an order comes to lure Farhad to Germany so the Mossad can run her asset themselves.
Aside from a quick burst of violence when Rachel is shocked to witness a fellow agent carrying out multiple kills, Adler ratchets up the tension only in one or two specific sequences. The first is when Rachel gains access to the Razavi Electronics database but has to make a snap decision after she runs into a security guard; the second depicts her crossing the Turkish border with a car full of bombs destined for Iran. Her vulnerability as a woman among skeevy mercenaries adds some kick to the latter incident but the action is mostly in the workaday vein for this type of material. Adler seems more interested in the logistical nuts and bolts of spy work, which turns out to be, well, kinda dull, not helped by the absence of even a single well-defined secondary character beyond the central triangle.
The wave of intricately detailed espionage drama on television in recent years — The Night Manager, Homeland, The Little Drummer Girl — has raised the bar for this genre, making The Operative seem a rather plodding two hours by comparison, not to mention unsatisfying, given its rushed open ending. There’s also little visual interest to elevate the proceedings; despite the requisite jolts of agitated camera movement, the flat shooting style gets no great mileage out of the international locations.
That leaves the performances, and while there’s an appealing, sexy chemistry between Kruger and Anvar, the characters just never exert much fascination. It’s hard to imagine this getting noticed outside the co-production territories.
Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Match Factory Productions, Spiro Films, Le Pacte, Archer Gray, Mountain Trail Films
Cast: Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, Cas Anvar
Director-screenwriter: Yuval Adler, based on the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir
Producers: Jean Labadie, Yuval Adler, Viola Fugen, Michael Weber, Eitan Mansuri, Anne Carey, Jonathan Doweck
Executive producers: Amy Nauiokas, Ephraim Gildor, Avi Nir, Teddy Schwartzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Yoel Herzberg
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Music: Frank Ilfman
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Casting: Emmanuelle Mayer
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Endeavor Content