Cambridge Spies [2003]

This moody BBC 2003 dramatization of the most notorious debacle in the history of the British Secret Service raises the specter of the treachery of Philby, Burgess, MacLean, and Blunt for a generation of viewers who can only imagine the shockwaves generated by their duplicity. Inevitably the story suffers from the basically repellent quality of its raw material. Determinedly nonjudgmental, it frequently stumbles along a precarious path between romantic eulogy and fact-based fable of the perils of idealism. For all the handsome casting, the characters have little charm to compensate for their deeds. Their motivations are sketched only vaguely. Even in moments of personal vulnerability, however poignant the performances, sympathy is at a premium. But it has its high points as an atmospheric soap opera: the recreation of a period that stretches from the radical aspects of 1930s university life at Cambridge to cold war London, dipping into the Spanish Civil War and the Washington diplomatic circle en route, is vivid. The acting, too, is fine. Tom Hollander's rampantly dissolute Burgess verges constantly on parody. But Toby Stephens (Philby), Samuel West (a frosty Blunt), and Rupert Penry-Jones (an emotionally wrung-out MacLean) work wonders with Peter Moffat's insubstantial script. --Piers Ford

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