The Secret Agent

on November 08, 1996 by Kevin Courrier
   What the hell has happened to Christopher Hampton? His Oscar-screenplay for Stephen Frear's brilliantly devious 1988 film "Dangerous Liaisons" was full of wit, malice and verve. Since then, everything he's done (including the script for the excruciating "Total Eclipse" and his own baffling "Carrington") has been dull, tame and inert. Hampton's second effort as a director, "The Secret Agent" is not only torpid, sometimes it's so underlit it seems to have been made for an audience of raccoons.
   Based on Joseph Conrad's novel (which was made into the smart and entertaining thriller "Sabotage" in the '30s by Alfred Hitchcock), the film is about an anarchist named Adolf Verloc (Bob Hoskins) who leads a double life as a secret agent for the Russian government in 1894. His loveless marriage to Winnie (Patricia Arquette) is one of convenience for both of them. She gets a stable life for herself and for her simpleton brother ("The Portrait of a Lady's" Christian Bale), without knowing Verloc's true identity, and he has a place to disguise that identity. When Verloc is summoned to explode a bomb in Greenwich, something goes terribly wrong, having a dramatic effect on the makeshift family he's created.
   Although "Sabotage" set the story much later than the novel, Hitchcock was truer to the spirit of Conrad (that is, how a person's actions question the worth of that person) than Hampton does. And Hitchcock developed the horrific underpinnings of that unholy marriage. Working with a talented cast, Hampton does nothing more than sketch the story's particulars, hampered by needless flashbacks; the family relationship is so thin it appears that Adolf and Winnie barely know each other. Even Robin Williams, as a terrorist in training, does little more than the raise the decibel level of this limp endeavor. Starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Christian Bale and Jim Broadbent. Directed and written by Christopher Hampton. Produced by Norman Heyman and Bob Hoskins. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for some moments of violence. Running time: 95 min. Screened at the Toronto fest
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