This film seems to have it all: intrigue, love, war, betrayal, ideology and a cast of enthralling characters against a gorgeous Cambridge background. The cinematography and cast mostly do justice to a fast moving but understandable plotline. The script is mostly believable.
The four Cambridge spies are swiftly introduce. This picture is commendable for its degree of historical accuracy. The biodata of the title roles is mostly spot-on.
Guy Burgess is a dishevelled, chain smoking promiscuous gay. However, his alcoholism, spite, filthiness and egotism is underplayed.
Anthony Blunt is a young, homosexual don. He is effete, reserved, intellectual and a little dry.
Kim Philby is shown as an idealistic and valiant youth – totally heterosexual. His dypsomania does not get a look in nor does his betrayal of all those closest too him. At least the film notes that he quickly abandoned his Austrian wife.
Donald Maclean is much the same as Philby. The fact that his father was leader of the Liberal Party is rightly mentioned. Maclean is shown as urbane and fairly phlegmatic. Only when he fears he will be unmasked as working for Stalin does he seem to fret.
The film shows the beauty of Cambridge with its honey coloured quadrangles and impeccable lawns. The world class traitors are also portrayed as being as admirable as their surroundings. The question is never asked: if they abominate Cambridge so much why are they there? They are driven by self-interest as well as vain moralising.
The script is sometimes stilted. ”From quadrangle to quadrangle – a life in squares” was a line in the mouth of Burgess. This was too far fetched and recherche.
Burgess is on trial for cottaging. At his trial he gives his word ”As an Eton man and a Cambridge man.” No one ever calls themselves ”an Eton man”. It is ”an Etonian”. It is staggering that an otherwise well researched script should include such a honking error. Besides, this is laying it on with a trowel to suggest the wicked establishment would be so blatant as to mention school an varsity in a trial as a reason to be acquitted. Burgess is wearing his OE tie as he reportedly did every day later in life. The magistrate also sports the black with Cambridge blue lines. Again, this is overegging the point.
Much was made of anti-gay prejudice in this film. Indeed homosexual acts were criminal at the time. This is held up as an excuse for these men to assist one of the most murderous regimes of all time. Being caught for gay sex in the USSR was not punishable by a fine or a few months in prison. The penalty was much stiffer than that. This did not seem to bother these doyens of communism.
The acting is mostly sound and sometimes excellent. Simon Woods has a bit part as an anti-Semitic and anti-socialist undergraduate. He is macho and boorish. He plays against type since he is effeminate and liberal-left in real life. Benedict Cumberbatch also had a cameo in which he performs admirably.
There is a lot of sex in the film. Philby was a virgin till he went to Vienna and met Litzi so the idea that he bedded a girl at Cambridge was not credible.
The film also tries to salvage Philby’s reputation by suggesting he was horrified by the Nazi-Soviet pact at first. He seems not to have a troubled conscience over it in real life. His idol was actively supporting Nazism and in this Stalin had the unstinting backing of Philby.
Edward Fox who plays the British ambassador performs excellently. He does not act as Lord Halifax did. The Earl of Halifax was more austere, aloof, churchy and reserved. Nevertheless Fox comes across as the stereotypical old school British ambassador.
The wardrobe and the interior scenes were very believable. They showed the shabbiness of the time. The clothes were not all made in the exact year depicted. People often wear clothes that are several years old.
The film is,in places, crassly polemic. The angle is far left. The only decent people in 1930s Britain were communists. Everyone else we meet is a fascist. Being anti-war and being anti-Semitic are elided. Right wingers are crashing snobs and totally heartless. Admittedly there is a grain of truth in this accusation but it is overstated.
These spies are given far too easy a ride. If they cared about the needy they would have given them their own money instead of spending it all on alcohol, cigarettes, sex, good houses and foreign holidays. They claimed to have compassion for the British working class who were suffering. They felt no mercy for the Soviet working class that was being starved to death. The savage cruelty of communist oppression made many believe that Nazism – rough as it was – must be tolerated because only it could stop the commies.
In Spain Philby is disgusted to see the bombing of Guernica. He never went to Guernica. One glaring mistake was showing a priest in his clericals in that town. Catholic priests were murdered by the hundred in Republican territory. It is unlikely that a clergyman would have walked around in his soutan and biretta even in the Basque Country. Philby is distraught when a little boy is shot dead by a German pilot. Philby wants war to prevent the killing of children. This is the central idiocy of the anti-fascist movement at the time. The war they proposed to fight would kill far, far more children than had been killed in Spain. A German child is as good as a Spanish child or any other.
There are a few minor betises. Philby went to Spain as a freelancer and only subsequently was in the employ of the Times newspaper. Harold Adrian Russell Philby’s alcoholism is entirely overlooked. His dysfunctional relationship with his mentally ill-wife is also not covered. Perhaps there is insufficent time for this. He comes across as likeable and driven solely by the noblest of motives. This should not detract from an otherwise entertaining and informative film.
Cambridge Spies is very watchable. It has pace but does not confuse the viewer by moving too fast. The characters are comprehensible and the tale is easy to follow without being patronising. There is plenty of emotion but it is never melodramatic. The artistry is excellent and never too pretentious. There is suspense in places – such as will Philby assassinate Franco.
It would be fascinating to see someone have the gallantry to produce a film that was a similar whitewash of those who plumped for fascism because they could not abide the horrors of communist oppression. This film is an apologia for high treason by those who elected to serve one of the most hideously cruel regimes of all time. The Cambridge Spies are show in an almost entirely sympathetic light.
This made for television film was released in 2004.