The first of four British made-for-TV movies starring Dennis Waterman (The Sweeny, New Tricks) as former SAS operative turned MI5 agent John Neil is identified on screen only as “Circle of Deceit.” I suspect it was originally filmed as a one-off, then did well enough to justify a series at which point the title was apparently retroactively changed to Circles of Deceit: The Wolves are Howling. That’s how it’s identified on Acorn’s Circles of Deceit DVD set at any rate.
Director Geoffrey Sax (Fawlty Towers, Framed, Spice World) apparently likes to set a challenge for himself, so he begins his movie with flashbacks to a circus tragedy, an odd and outdated movie cliché so overused that it was hilariously sent up in OSS 117: Lost in Rio. Yet here Sax more or less pulls it off. Despite that beginning, he delivers a really good drama. Such a beginning, in fact, proves entirely appropriate, because Circles of Deceit: The Wolves Are Howling trades on clichés of this nature, yet handles them all so well that it really doesn’t matter. This movie doesn’t bring anything new to the spy genre, the ex-soldier genre or the IRA infiltrator genre, but it makes an incredibly solid example of all three. And, personally, sometimes that’s exactly what I want out of a genre movie.
John Neil is an SAS Falklands vet who lost his wife and child two years earlier in an IRA bombing at a circus in Germany. This event provoked his retirement, and he’s been a drunken recluse ever since. Then an amazing coincidence occurs. (The plot hinges on a couple such coincidences, but gets away with it.) An Irishman named Jackie O’Connell dies in a car accident. He was born in Belfast, but has lived in London for the last twenty years or more. And he bears an uncanny resemblance to John Neil. This is too good an opportunity for MI5 spymaster Randal (Derek Jacobi, playing a typically sleazy bureaucrat) to pass up. While O’Connell was not himself a terrorist, he has an estranged brother in Belfast who’s a priest in a parish dominated by IRA soldiers. It’s a rare and perfect chance to place an infiltrator in their midst. With a little prodding from Randal (who isn’t above playing on Neil’s past and hatred for the IRA because of what they did to his family), Neil is lured out of retirement and given a crash course in the Belfast neighborhood he’ll claim to be from and its mostly nefarious denizens.
Foremost among them is Liam McAuley, a high-ranking IRA mastermind and patriarch of a whole IRA family. Liam is played by stalwart ITC veteran Peter Vaughan (Hammerhead, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Codename: Kyril, various Avengers, etc.). His accent sometimes fails him, but overall Vaughan delivers his usual screen-filling, utterly captivating performance.
Neil makes his entrance at the wake for one of McAuley’s sons, freshly killed by British soldiers. He introduces himself as Jackie to Jackie’s brother, the parish priest, Father Fergal. Fergal gives him a few tests which Neil’s cramming enables him to pass and then readily accepts him as his long-lost brother. Fergal is a sympathetic character, well played by Ian McElhinney. He wants to see the best in everyone and he clearly wants to believe that Jackie has returned, so he’s easily fooled. Naturally, Neil feels guilty for taking advantage of the optimistic man of God, and he may even find a real kinship of sorts with him. But Fergal does not approve of the McAuleys or their methods, and therefore loses faith in the man he believes is Jackie when he starts (per orders) associating with them. One can only imagine how betrayed he’ll feel when it comes out that Neil isn’t Jackie at all, but a British soldier. (A patriotic Irishman to the core, Fergal has even less love for the British than he does for the IRA.) Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, as it spares the audience some excruciating discomfort), we never get to see his reaction to that revelation, as the story has moved in other directions by then.
Through Fergal, Neil is introduced to the McAuley clan and even accepted. When Neil hits it off with Liam’s pacifist daughter, Eilish (who shares her family’s cause, but not their methods), Randal orders him to use that connection to get close to Liam. Naturally, Neil develops strong feelings of his own for the passionate Eilish (a very appealing Clare Higgins). He starts to fall in love with her, a turn of events which regular viewers of this sort of drama will know can only end in tragedy. Yes, The Wolves Are Howling is ticking formulaic boxes, but it’s ticking them well.
Waterman is quite good as John Neil, imbuing his every action with enough of a haunted past that we really didn’t need the circus flashbacks. The score by Tim Souster is particularly effective, and melds well with the performances, the settings and the direction to create a suitably gloomy Irish feel. It’s the atmosphere more than the story that stuck with me after watching this, and it’s largely that same atmosphere that makes it feel more like a one-off drama than an entry in (or beginning to) a series.
There is a budget here, enough for convincing location filming and some small-scale military action including helicopters. But that doesn’t make The Wolves Are Howling an action movie. I was expecting action just based on that ex-SAS premise, since action is usually what that premise delivers. Neil himself only does one little bit of fighting, but in true SAS form, it’s a single, lighting-quick surprise move that kills in one blow. No, The Wolves Are Howling is a drama—and a very good one. The story beats aren’t new and the characters are familiar. But the performances are engaging, as is the overall bleak tenor of the piece. (It kind of reminded me of the Patrick McGoohan/Lee Van Cleef IRA drama The Hard Way, another deliberately paced drama whose identity comes from its tone rather than its familiar one-last-job assassin plot.)
Undercover dramas of this nature are inherently heartbreaking, because you know all along that the hero must betray all of the relationships he forms. And you can’t help feeling sorry for some of the people he’ll betray. While the IRA are clearly bad guys here, this telefilm doesn’t really take sides in the conflict. Instead, it questions the methods of both parties. And ultimately it lays the blame at the feet of the English for perpetuating the circle of violence—somewhat surprisingly for something made for British television. Yet just as Circles of Deceit: The Wolves Are Howling isn’t an action movie, it’s also not a political movie. It’s a character-driven drama, and one I found very compelling. While this movie works perfectly well as a standalone, I'm looking forward to seeing where this series—and the character of John Neil—goes from here.