Defence of the Realm
Conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s tend to feel much more tangible and potent than their modern equivalents, perhaps due to the relatively low-tech surveillance and the grimy physicality of threat round every corner. David Drury’s film is a British take on a genre mostly monopolised by America up to that point, probably because our films usually followed the spies doing the spying rather than the victims. Apparently the BBC has a remake in development…
Gabriel Byrne (excellent) is tipped off about a Labour MP’s apparent links to a KGB agent. When a colleague (Denholm Elliot) dies suddenly, Byrne discovers he was investigating his own angle on the story.
The cover-up Byrne discovers probably seems like small potatoes in the current age of conspiracy theorising, but digs into areas that were under much scrutiny at the time (US/UK military links, nuclear proliferation). Where it retains power is in the claustrophobic atmosphere created, the camerawork suggesting constant monitoring. David Drury has worked mostly in TV since, but cinematographer Roger Deakins has gone onto great things (notably with the Coen brothers); the film is entirely shot on location, which adds immeasurably to the mood. It has the same air of bleak ‘80s menace that haunts Edge of Darkness.
It’s this that really boosts the film, as many of the elements are familiar. Byrne’s character is a hack journalist out for his next story; it’s being prevented from doing this, rather than any idealism, that gets him motivated. And the obstacles in his way, as ever, relate to money and power. There is an excellent scene late in the film where he’s being interviewed by a governmental panel, and it’s quite clear he’s no Woodward and Bernstein; he hasn’t even given any thought to where a line might be drawn in terms of legitimate secrecy in the name of the defence of the realm.
The supporting cast is awash with talented thesps; Ian Bannen, Bill Patterson, David Calder, Fulton Mackay, Robbie Coltrane. Prentis Hancock… Greta Scacchi looks very lovely but is rather stilted. The synth score is variable, at times having the desired ominous effect, at others intrusive and omni-present. According to the (ropey) DVD location extra they showed a script to the US Airforce, who allowed the producers to visit an airbase; I’m surprised any co-operation was forthcoming given the nature of the film.