People, on the whole, can be gullible – they want to believe a good story. Particularly if there is something exciting in it which gives them a chance to transcend the mundanity of everyday life. This gives people with questionable scruples the opportunity to take advantage of others. Rogue Agent, based on a true story, is the tale of just such a person, taken to sociopathic extremes. The setting is England in the mid-1990s. We are introduced to Robert Freegard (James Norton)as he takes a bartending job in a university town. He ingratiates himself with a group of students, Sophie (Marisa Abela), Mae (Freya Mavor), and Ian (Rob Malone), before revealing to them that he isn’t the man they think he is. He’s actually an agent of MI5, the British Security Service, and he is undercover sniffing out participants and sympathizers of the Irish Republican Army. He tells these young people that their help would be invaluable in saving lives, and convinces them to help him. Then, soon after, he wakes them all early in the morning to tell them they their cover has been blown and that they have to go on the run. Cut to a few years later, and Freegard is now working at a car dealership. He starts to charm his way into the life of Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a high-powered litigator whose career is on the rise.
During this period, the story cuts back several times to show Freegard still running secret operations with Sophie, telling her eventually she could prove herself and become a MI5 agent as well. However, there are several times when something Freegard says doesn’t add up for Alice, and she becomes suspicious. Each time Alice questions him, he comes up with some story to assuage her doubts for the moment. But he knows that Alice is coming closer to the truth. Freegard is not a secret agent, he is a con-man. So he has Sophie pose as Alice and is able to clear out a business bank account he and Alice had opened together to the tune of 120,000 pounds and he and Sophie disappear. Alice is embarrassed and furious that she has fallen for this schemer. When she is essentially asked to leave her job, she becomes obsessed with finding Freegard and bringing him down. The rest of the film focuses on this search, cross-cut with the path of destruction Freegard continues to wreak on victims old and new.
The Robert Freegard story is a dark and fascinating one, so it is a shame that the film doesn’t live up to it. The primary problem is in the direction. The film is co-directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, both first time narrative feature directors. Unfortunately, the film looks and feels like a mid-grade television production. There are no memorable shots until the very end of the film, and everything just looks flat and lifeless. This is especially hard to understand given that Larry Smith is on board as thef film’s cinematographer. Smith worked with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Only God Forgives, and John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and Calvary. All of these are films with great visual style, and with the exception of Kubrick’s were shot on similar or lesser budgets than Rogue Agent.
The screenplay, written by the directors along with journalist Michael Bronner is serviceable. It does a solid job in the early going of not giving away the game as to whether Freegard is telling the truth or not, which builds some suspense. But there is little in the way of particularly strong scenes, even given a good cast. Indeed, casting is the strength of the film. James Norton does an excellent job with the multiple sides of Freegard, charming and manipulative. He gives an excellent portrait of a sociopath. He is failed spectacularly by a script moment late in the film where Freegard appears to show remorse, which doesn’t fit the character as portrayed to that point, nor does it fit the historical record of the actual Freegard. Gemma Arterton’s Alice is essentially the main character of the film, and she does well with what she’s given, but this screenplay really isn’t enough to really sink her teeth into. This is a shame as Arterton is a terrific actress, as anyone who has seen 2017’s Their Finest can attest to. Marisa Abela is a standout as Freegard victim Sophie Jones, and the best scenes in the film revolve around her and her parents, played by Simon Chandler and Melissa Collier. Rogue Agent is a fascinating story which disappoints in execution.