When Gemma Arterton faces off against Norton’s chameleonic con man, Rogue Agent compels, but most everything else about it is overly familiar.
In Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn’s spy thriller Rogue Agent, English actor James Norton plays Robert Hendy-Freegard. Or, more aptly, Norton plays every version of Hendy-Freegard — lovable, charming, terrifying, convincing, evil. Norton’s up to the task, and the film rewards a level of misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge about Hendy-Freegard and his history (he has already been made into a docuseries). With each passing moment, Norton becomes more persuasive, more potent in his convictions, and more believable in his alleged employment as an MI5 agent constantly on the run.
Rogue Agent focuses on one of Hendy-Freegard’s victims, lawyer Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), and their short-lived, explosive relationship. It hums when focusing on Norton and Arterton, a dynamic duo bringing a seductive, dangerous nature to their (mostly) linear story. They teeter between passionate love and a clear sense of unknowing, a lack of awareness that Norton banishes with cleverness and one big gesture after another. When Archer finds out who Hendy-Freegard really is, she decides it’s her mission to find him, expose him, and save any other woman he might be hurting.
In attempting a romance/spy/conman story Patterson and Lawn have crafted a film that struggles to pick a lane, a genre, or a tone. It remains entertaining due to Norton and Arterton’s performances, but the story itself would have benefitted from more meat on the bone. When the script flips and the audience has as much knowledge as Archer Rogue Agent‘s plot beats begin to follow a more choreographed line, and the most enthralling part of the film—the mystery of Hendy-Freegard and his relationship with Archer breaking apart — has vanished.
Hendy-Freegard’s other victims take up the rest of the film’s runtime, a felt 116 minutes. Women fall for his charms, only to be duped. The repetition dilutes Rogue Agent, even as Hendy-Freegard’s terrors increase. He’s a monster, but given the way Rogue Agent depicts events, his initial charming tactics are much more interesting than his final goals. The embryo of love within each of these relationships, especially with Archer, gives Norton, Arterton, and the greater ensemble opportunities to feign and bluff, to oscillate between flirtation and disinterest. This oscillation is core to Rogue Agent. It’s a title that could use a question mark at the end of it—less a film about an MI5 agent’s actions and more about the question of whether or not an agent at all.
When the film focuses on the investigation and pursuit of Hendy-Freegard, it stalls, jettisoning the passionate nature of its first act. It wants to become a puzzle with a countdown, a film about a lover chasing her ex-flame, a film about saving someone from the clutches of a kidnapper. The actual pursuit lulls its way towards a conclusion, as the film offers little connection to the people being saved. Hendy-Freegard and Archer become less interesting without one another, and their faux relationship—the central question which drives the film through its first hour—falls away. The hunt for the conman takes up the narrative mantle, unable to hold up the weight or runtime of Patterson and Lawn’s drama.
Still, Rogue Agent has broad appeal. It combines elements of mystery, romance, spy story, and drama into a serviceable film, one engaging enough to stave off boredom and even offer some excitement. The seductive romance between Norton and Arterton is the clearest reason to watch Rogue Agent, two lived-in performances that inhabit this world; it’s just unfortunate that it’s one traced from other detective stories, other spy thrillers, and other romantic dramas.
Rogue Agent is now playing in theaters and on demand.