At a point in "The Secret Agent," a mildly retarded young man laboriously draws a picture of what he sees. What he sees is: circles within circles within circles.
Obviously, he'd been looking at the plot, not the people.
"The Secret Agent" is set at the turn of the century, but it feels like it just came out of John le Carre's word processor yesterday, not Joseph Conrad's fountain pen in 1907; it has all the high tropes of the existential espionage novel except a Wall. That includes nihilist terrorists, cynical cops, supercilious controllers, betrayed wives, a politician desperate to cover his own rear and, the point of connection between them all, a little spy, more acted upon than acting, yet never quite so innocent as he pretends to be.
This poor fellow is one Verloc (Bob Hoskins), a tobacconist whose true calling was once revolution and is now treachery. He is a professional traitor who plays all sides against each other and himself against all sides. He's been turned so many times he hardly exists anymore in real time and he has so many masters at so many cross-purposes to each other, it's surprising that he can remember his own name, much less theirs.
Verloc is assigned by one set of employers -- the Russian embassy -- to commit a terrorist act, but it has to be a spectacular one. "It's so hard to shock people these days," says the Russian spy master wearily, sounding like a talking head on "The McLaughlin Group." "I mean what can one do? Throw a bomb into pure mathematics?" The Russian assigns him to blow up the great clocks at Greenwich, the point being to so rile the British that they clamp down on the anti-Tsarist revolutionary culture that seethes and crackles in the back alleys of Soho.
Naturally, Verloc screws this up, killing an innocent without costing the world a second, and naturally he sets in motion the very gears that will eventually crush him. What he can't know -- it's become a cheap irony but one presumes it was fresh when Conrad dreamed it up all those years ago -- is that the instrument of his destruction will be no political will, no ideological soldier, no security service making a hard call: No, it will be his most primitive betrayal, which was of the heart, not the head.
I was stunned how much the piece -- adapted from Conrad and directed by the playwright Christopher Hampton, who also wrote "Dangerous Liaisons" -- reminded me of Le Carre's first great novel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." It's that same subset of espionage thriller, the dark, bitter study of the futility of it all. The more these people plot, the less they accomplish, including not merely the spies but the spy-catchers, too, of whom there are many sets.
The movie is full of macabre surprises. As good as Hoskins is as the little sweat-manufacturer caught in everybody's pliers, far better is Robin Williams in an unbilled appearance as a nihilist dynamiter who so loathes society and himself that he's become a walking bomb, with his hand clutched on the detonator, which at any time he can squeeze and blow up his little corner of the world. His avuncularity makes this a truly chilling performance, particularly as ranged against Jim Broadbent's oafish "Inspector Heat," who is charged with keeping a lid on all these bad boys.
"The Secret Agent" has the taste of fear and desolation to it.
'The Secret Agent'
Starring Bob Hoskins and Robin Williams
Directed by Christopher Hampton
Released by Miramax Rated R
Pub Date: 12/13/96