Jul 29, 2010

DVD Review: Codename: Kyril (1988)

Of all the 80s spy miniseries made for British television that I’ve been watching lately, Codename: Kyril is by far the most enjoyable. That’s thanks more to the cast of well-known actors and first-rate production values than the script (by Smiley’s People scribe John Hopkins, based on a novel by John Trenhaile), though. Fantastic actors, fantastic sets and locations and slick cinematography put it head-and-shoulders above the others, but don’t help it make much sense. The plot is very dense and undeniably muddled, but everything that’s actually going on on screen–from the dialogue to the rather impressive action setpieces–makes it easy to swallow nonetheless. I stopped trying to mentally plug every plot hole and instead just went with it, and let myself be carried by the frequent twists and turns the story takes, savoring the rich performances along the way. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

The version of Codename: Kyril available on Region 2 DVD from Network is not the cut-down movie version that aired on American television and subsequently enjoyed a VHS release. This is the full two part miniseries, totaling nearly four hours. I’m actually a little bit curious about the two-hour cut version, because it would certainly be possible to edit all of this material into a tighter, more streamlined and more cohesive story... but in all likelihood the truncations probably just make it even more muddled. Given a choice, I’d much rather see the full, uncut miniseries, because there’s a lot of globetrotting espionage to enjoy, and the pacing works quite well as it stands, so I would hate to see individual sequences needlessly pared.

Codename: Kyril follows two rival moles working against each other to prevent their exposure–one in MI6's London Station (note the Le Carré jargon) and one in Moscow Centre. This isn’t a who’s-the-traitor? mystery, though, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the audience is aware of the moles’ identities very early on. Instead it’s about watching the game unfold, as they and their superiors each make moves and counter-moves. The great Edward Woodward plays Royston, the Russian mole very highly placed inside MI6, as a haughty, petulant asshole with a penchant for bow ties. He’s about as far away from Woodward’s career-launching spy role of David Callan as one can get–but a bit closer to Robert McCall gone bad. (Codename: Kyril was made while The Equalizer was still on the air.) He answers to Joss Ackland as C, the head of MI6 who doesn’t realize there’s a traitor within his organization. On the other side, Denholm Elliott plays Povin, the bookish, bespectacled highly-ranking KGB man passing secrets to the British. His performance is somewhat similar to the “complicated man behind a phony, ‘silly ass’ facade” with which he imbued his Smiley in A Murder of Quality. Quintessential Englishman Elliott seems a bit too British to pass for Russian, but then again we’re dealing with an entirely English-speaking, Russian-accented KGB here–an 80s TV conceit that works just fine for me. Peter Vaughn plays the Russian spymaster, Stanov, and unlike his English counterpart, he knows that he has a mole in his organization. It’s his efforts to force that mole to reveal himself that set the story into motion.

Stanov sends a very capable and highly trusted agent code named–obviously–Kyril (Ian Charleson) out into the cold to pose as a defector, thus flushing out the British mole and forcing him to make a stupid mistake. He is bait, and he knows it. The finer points of Stanov’s plan were never totally clear to me (why would a defector take his knowledge of a British mole to the British, who would already be well aware of that?), but of course events don’t go exactly according to plan anyway–and the way that things actually turn out is much easier to follow than the way they were intended to go. MI5, meanwhile, has uncovered a KGB treasurer and armorer operating in London–and makes the mistake of contacting Royston about their discovery. He takes charge of attempts to turn the spy–operating, of course, according to his own agenda. To that end he recruits a patriotic lawyer and sometime MI6 agent named Sculby, played by Richard E. Grant (at his most flamboyantly 80s). The Russian agent, Loshkevoi, meanwhile, is making his way through Europe (to make the defection look genuine), with the eventual objective of hooking up with his London girlfriend, Emma (Catherine Neilson), who has come under Sculby’s observation in the course of his mission. Those are the key players, and it should be clear from their numbers alone that they’re probably better suited to a miniseries than a TV movie. It helps to have so many recognizable actors in the roles, as that makes it easier to keep track of all these characters.

While the intrigue is pure Le Carré, the action is more Ludlum. The combination of those two makes for ideal miniseries material. Kyril’s defection route takes him from Moscow to Amsterdam, across Europe to London. Along the way he stops to cash out his own stashes of money and weapons and passports that any good agent would have accrued over years in the field, all in order to make the defection look real to both sides. (This deception is crucial, since Stanov doesn’t know who in Moscow Centre he can trust.) That also pits Kyril against his own KGB comrades, whose orders are to stop him using any means necessary–short of killing. This scenario leads to some accomplished action sequences–including a chase across Dutch rooftops ending in gunplay and a large explosion.

The locations themselves–a key element in any spy tale–are phenomenal. East Anglia doesn’t stand in for Russia. This miniseries clearly had a budget. And director Ian Sharp (2nd Unit Director on GoldenEye) makes the most of it. Codename: Kyril was shot on location in London, Bristol, Amsterdam and Oslo. Oslo makes a very convincing Moscow. I don’t claim to have been to Moscow (in the 80s or ever), but I was sold. I would have believed it was Moscow if I didn’t know better. It’s clearly cold enough, and the buildings and trains look distinctive enough that they won’t be confused for British. Even the locations within England are superb, spanning from a very modern looking MI6 office space to a spacious London flat to a sprawling country house–a wing of which the Public Trust makes available to MI6 for use as a safe house.

The prolonged climax in which all the characters finally comes together (or most of them, anyway) takes place at that country house, and I couldn’t help but flash back to Callan while watching Edward Woodward pace around a giant, darkened country safehouse waiting for a supposed defector to appear! It’s “The Richmond File” all over again–only circumstances are somewhat reversed.

The climax that events in that country house build to is inevitable, but the suspense–and the fun–comes in how we get there. You always know that these 80s British spy miniseries are going to try to outdo each other in terms of utterly bleak, existential endings. That was a mark of the genre in those days. You know how it’s all going to end (badly) but the game is guessing why... and how it will get there. And, of course, who will survive. Characters don’t necessarily have to die in order for things to turn out poorly for them.

One of the many things that Codename: Kyril has going for it is that we actually do care about these characters’ fates–on both sides of the equation. Royston is the closest thing to an actual villain on display–but that’s more because of what an utter prick he is than because he’s a traitor. (And despite that, he’s still kind of badass–mainly thanks to Woodward.) The other Russian characters come off pretty well. It’s quite interesting, in fact, that the story is told largely from the Soviet agents’ point of view. Even the assassin who’s dispatched from Moscow late in the game and murders a pivotal–and likable–character is not presented as a bad guy. He’s merely someone with a job to do, like everyone else. And he questions that job for a moment, but ultimately does what he’s paid to do. Most of the spies in Codename: Kyril are just pawns, slaves to the whims and machinations of spymasters and victims of traitors and moles.

Codename: Kyril may not tell a totally cohesive story, but it doesn’t need to. It’s got so much else going for it. Huge stars, fine performances, slick production and great locations all add up to provide everything you could ask for from a spy miniseries of this era. (And of its era it certainly is–from Richard E. Grant’s and Hugh Fraser’s hair to all the neon lights to Grant’s oversized checkerboard linen sports coat, Codename: Kyril screams 80s.) If you, like me, often find yourself wishing that there were more miniseries from this time based on the works of Robert Ludlum and John Le Carré, Codename: Kyril will satisfy you on both fronts.  Right now, the Region 2 PAL disc is available exclusively through Network's website.

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