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The Secret Agent

CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1936, 1992, 1996, 2016

The Secret AgentFirst U.S. edition, 1907
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

First publication

Literature form

Literary, crime, espionage

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 93,500 words

Scene from The Secret Agent, 2016
Christian Bale, Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette in The Secret Agent film adaptation of 1996.

Short secret lives

The Secret Agent (1996): Film, 95 minutes; director and writer Christopher Hampton; featuring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gérard Depardieu, Christian Bale, Jim Broadbent, Eddie Izzard

After the three-hour BBC miniseries based on The Secret Agent, the 1996 feature film is faced with the daunting task of squeezing all that drama into about half the time.

And it doesn't quite manage it. Despite employing another solid cast of great, (mainly) British actors, The Secret Agent ends up being the least effective of all the available adaptations.

The chief exceptions to the British cast are American movie star Patricia Arquette as Winnie Verloc, innocent wife of the saboteur, and internationally renowned French actor Gérard Depardieu as conspirator Ossipon, villain of the piece.

The other leads are competent but somehow never resonate as the characters they play. At the centre, Bob Hoskins' Verloc seems too emotionally shut off—a Hoskins speciality in movies—to garner any understanding of his interior life, and Christian Bale seems on the surface just too, well, Christian Bale, to pass as Winnie's doomed mentally challenged brother the story's most pathetic victim. They just aren't given enough to develop their characters in a way for audiences to empathize with them beyond their obvious roles in the drama.

Trailer for the 1996 film of Conrad's The Secret Agent.

Among the scondary characters, Jim Broadbent has received praise for his role as the police inspector and an uncredited Robin Williams got noticed as a bomb-carrying professor.

Playswright Christopher Hampton wrote and directed this adaptation, which moves slowly despite compressing the original story—mainly by cutting out scenes elaborating character.

Still, if you want to get a concise summary of Conrad's novel in dramatic form, this version does the trick.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1936, 1992, 1996, 2016