Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Ipcress File, on AMC+

Harry Palmer did not jump out of airplanes with a Union Jack parachute and a bottle of champagne. He was a grittier, grubbier kind of spy. Not much for grandstanding and skeptical of authority, Palmer was a workaday, working-class agent. The new dramatization of Len Deighton’s first novel initially remembers who Palmer was, but than it forgets it. Unfortunately, most of the updating and liberties taken are mistakes in John Hodges adaptation of The Ipcress File, which premieres today on AMC+.

Initially, Harry Palmer is more like Harry Lime, managing an ambitious black-market operation throughout divided Berlin as a mere Corporal. Next comes the brig, but Major Dalby from an off-the-books intelligence agency offers him a furlough in exchange for contacting a target code-named “Housemartin.” Palmer once did business with the mercenary-smuggler. However, Housemartin has advanced to some pretty serious business, including allegedly kidnapping Prof. Radcliffe, a missing atomic scientist. So far, so Deighton.

Unfortunately, things change when Palmer and fellow agent Jean Courtney are to dispatched to the South Pacific, to observe a nuclear test that might be related to Dawson’s research. Here the plot radically diverges from the novel and the classic Michael Caine film. For one thing, the ultimate villain is no longer the original villain. Instead, he is just be played by Col. Stok, who was something like Le Carre’s “Karla” in later Harry Palmer novels. The Soviets are not really the baddies anymore, just impish rivals. Who are the bad guys now? Us, of course—the Americans trying to win the Cold War. How dare us.

This isn’t a complaint based on wounded national pride. Hodge loses thread of what
Ipcress is, turning it into a half-baked JFK assassination conspiracy thriller, with Palmer being set up as an Oswald-style patsy. We have seen far too many of these exploitative yarns. It also diverges from the elegant simplicity and mordant humor of the classic ending. Palmer belongs in a dark and dingy warehouse, not a big macro-geopolitical thriller that could pass for a cross between Oliver Stone’s JFK and Day of the Jackal.

It is a shame, because Joe Cole is terrific as Palmer. He is intense and hardboiled, but also cheeky enough to evoke memories of the young Caine, while still being his own person. The always reliable Tom Hollander is quite droll as Dalby and David Dencik does just the right amount of scenery-chewing as Stok. Nora-Jane Noone is also very good as Dr. Karen Newton, a psychologist studying the effects of working around nuclear arms, even though her subplot is unconvincing and contrived.

Compounding the frustration,
Ipcress always looks great. The early 1960s period details are so spot-on, viewers would not be surprised the see the Krays or Caine’s Alfie Cartwright walk through the background. Hodges treatment is just so revisionist, it no longer keeps faith with the source material. (Again, would critics object to an adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale that made the Commander the hero?) When it loses sight of Palmer’s cockiness and cockney-ness, Ipcress File just stops working. Not recommended (despite a strong start), Ipcress Files starts streaming today (5/19) on AMC+.