Hollywood is a sucker for a good real-life story, perhaps because no one seems to be able to come up with something as bizarre as a movie like Rogue Agent. Directed by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, the film centers on British con man Robert Hendy-Freegard, who, starting in the early 90s, convinced a series of people that he was an undercover MI5 agent. The thrill-seeking on-screen version, which adheres relatively closely to reality, is tense, thrilling, and will send viewers frantically searching Wikipedia for the rest of the story.
THE SEEN AGENT ★★★ (3/4 stars)
James Norton plays Freegard over a span of years, opening with him urging several university students, including Sophie Jones (Marisa Abela), to go into hiding as MI5 assets. The core of the film focuses on Freegard’s relationship with Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a lawyer initially skeptical of his advances. Once Freegarde reveals to Alice that he is in fact – but not really – a spy, she is torn between his believable cunning and her instinct that something is wrong. These instincts lead her on a trail of discovery that reveals the incredible extent of her drawbacks.
The film’s inherent strength is in this unlikely story, although of course the filmmakers took some liberties with the actual story. Alice, for example, is granted significant agency; it is unknown if she was actually involved in bringing down Freegard. But in the context of a dramatic narrative, it’s cathartic to see a woman who’s been scammed standing up for herself and orchestrating the downfall of an evil man. Arterton is cast perfectly as Alice, an independent, successful woman who succumbs to Freegard’s charms against her better judgment and nearly derails her career in the process.
The cast also includes barry actress Sarah Goldberg as Jenny Jackson, another of Freegard’s victims, and she and Abela do a lot with their limited screen time. It’s a credit to the directors that the female characters hold so strong against Freegard, made undeniably captivating by Norton. The story unfolds quickly, without too much unnecessary exposition, and the pieces fit together to reveal the vast layers of Freegard’s deception. How he got away with it, and for so long, is a lingering question.
The real Freegard has been chasing counters for years. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison, however, after an appeal, he was released in 2009. He is currently free, a fact that should terrify viewers of this film. Although its history may be less well known than other famous scammers, Freegard seems to have entered the zeitgeist this year. He is also the subject of the recent Netflix documentary series The Puppet Master: The Hunt for the Ultimate Tricksterwhich is worth a watch after finishing Rogue Agent. It hits on our contemporary obsession with con artists, which has invaded film and television recently in shows like Invent Anna and documentaries like fire fraud. Rogue Agent doesn’t necessarily offer conclusions about why people like Freegard are so deeply compelling, but he uses that sensitivity to his advantage. He is proof that the most interesting spies are those who are not spies at all.
Opinion of observers are regular ratings of new and noteworthy cinema.