‘The Operative’ brims with sex, intrigue, and exotic locations – all of the key components for a racy spy thriller, in other words. Which makes it difficult to see how Israeli director Yuval Adler got it so wrong with his latest film.
Told through a series flashbacks, the film stars Martin Freeman as Thomas, a British Jew working for the Israeli secret service. He recruits Rachel (Diane Kruger), a talented multi-linguist with a rootless, wandering upbringing and little family to speak of – all of which make her the perfect spy.
Rachel’s first mission (with the code name ‘Business As Usual’) is to get into Tehran as a school teacher and befriend Farhad (Cas Anvar), the son of a tech company manager. She easily wins over Farhad and sets about her mission to destabilise Iran’s nuclear program. But in a typically hokey turn of events, Rachel falls in love with Farhad and is forced to choose between loyalty to her handlers and her new man.
Having Kruger play a strong, intelligent woman at the centre of the story seems like a smart move. But in the case of ‘The Operative’, it isn’t. Rachel’s greatest weakness is her emotional volatility – not exactly a quality you’d expect in an international spy, adding to a long list of implausible elements which plague the film.
There is one intriguing and well-handled side-plot, involving Rachel smuggling explosives across the Turkish-Iranian border. Given the job by her superiors to test her loyalty, she is sexually assaulted by smugglers then has to trek through the desert alone, only to be rewarded by seeing the violent results of her actions. She’s quickly learning the personal cost of being a spy and how modern warfare operates.
It’s a lean, engaging set piece, but not enough to save an overwhelmingly dull film. It all feels too familiar, made worse by a trite conclusion, leaving you underwhelmed by an overall lacklustre thriller.
With much more captivating recent examples of the genre, like Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, it’s hard to see why you’d bother seeking out Adler’s film.