By Wendy Knowlton
25 August 2022
When remaking a classic film, it is probably wise to opt for a mini-series to avoid scene by scene comparisons. The 1965 version of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File starred Michael Caine as working-class spy, Harry Palmer, and he reprised his gritty antithesis to the martini-swilling James Bond in several more films. Joe Cole has the unenviable task of stepping into Caine’s iconic shoes. But despite the lookalike glasses and the London accent, he makes the role his own in this stylish six-part series that pays homage to the original but also forges a new path.
Thrown into military prison after augmenting his wages with black market activity in 1960s Berlin, Palmer is recruited by Major Dalby (Tom Hollander) who heads a small intelligence operation independent of MI5 and MI6. He needs someone with Palmer’s contacts and street smarts to probe the disappearance of a British nuclear scientist. Palmer takes to the espionage game with aplomb, but tilted camera angles reflect the uncertain surface of a world in which things are often not what they seem. Partnered with the coolly remote Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton), Palmer is swiftly confronted by deceptive lookalikes, coded conversations, and fragile allegiances. It seems anyone can be bought, or might be working for another side, and those who can’t necessarily be trusted range from the Russians to the Americans, to the core of British intelligence itself. A cinema advertising The Manchurian Candidate offers a substantial clue as to what is behind some of the devious plotting, and a sinister room full of flashing lights and hypnotic sound equipment reinforces what awaits.
None of this feels particularly real, but it doesn’t matter. These Cold War tensions take part in a beautifully dressed past where men in bowler hats plot and scheme, and the impeccably coiffed Jean carries a handbag whilst on a break-in. Tom Hollander’s Major Dalby is polished and patronising, exuding assurance that suggests he could easily save (or destroy) the world between sips of Earl Grey. Boynton’s secretive Jean reveals little personality in the opening episodes but her Hitchcock-blonde exterior promises fires within. Despite being roughly the same age as the brash, gritty and imposing Caine was when he filmed his version, Cole feels much more boyish and not nearly such a physical presence. His Palmer is easily bested in a fight and rather appealingly embarrassed when allowing himself to be “discovered” with another woman to give his wife grounds for divorce. But his intelligence and quick thinking are also obvious, as is the subversive nature necessary to repel what is thrown against him.
The evocation of ‘60s London and a divided Berlin is of as much interest as the devious spy games. In this world of typewriters and room-sized computers, intriguing streetscapes, beautiful cars and eye-catching wardrobes rival the twists and turns of the plot. This series may not rise to the heights of the original film, but will entertain, nevertheless.
The Ipcress File is available on 7-plus and Channel 7, Tuesday nights.