' ' Cinema Romantico: The Operative

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Operative

The eponymous operative of Yuval Adler’s film is Rachel Currin (Diane Kruger), whose rootless, global upbringing makes her a perfect target for Mossad, the Israeli security agency. This inherent lack of identity, therefore, built into the character also becomes something of the point, as movies about undercover agents often do, with the emergent possibility that Rachel gets In Too Deep or Might Never Have Known Herself At All, clichés “The Operative” flirts with giving genuine emotional heft. Alas, If there are moments when Adler’s film, based on Yiftach Reicher-Atir’s novel “The English Teacher”, suggests an immersive character study, she more often filters that character study through the framework of a traditional thriller, one that never capitalizes on the inherent tensions of its Iran-Israel relations, and duplicates standard-issue suspense scenes of, say, Rachel nearly being caught downloading sensitive information without expanding on it in any meaningful or exciting way.

“The Operative” begins mid-stream, with Rachel making an unexpected call to her former British handler Thomas (Martin Freeman), making him and Mossad worry something non-copacetic is up. The movie then circles back to Rachel’s beginning by way of Thomas explaining to his betters who she was, why she was recruited, what she did, cutting between past and present throughout, the sort of convoluted spy game suggesting John le Carré, though Adler does not evince the same sort of visual delicacy present in, say, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” where so much could be said without saying anything at all. Consider Rachel’s first mission to Tehran where she is woken in the middle of the night by men speaking in the hall. Seen only through the keyhole, these men may or may not be after her, though rather than waiting to find out, “The Operative” cuts to Rachel telling Thomas how this moment gave her confidence to live out her necessary lie to the fullest. It’s not that Adler shortchanges the suspense but that she presents Rachel’s epiphany entirely through dialogue rather than a short sequence laying it out visually instead, causing a crucial moment of characterization to feel perfunctory.

Exactly what renders Rachel so perfect for this position is mostly just assumed from her background, while her training is non-existent, leaving Thomas to continually explain why, for us as much as the Mossad higher-ups with whom he’s communicating, why she’s cut out for such significant intelligence. Going through Tehran airport security, however, Kruger plays the moment with such manifest fear that everything will go wrong it’s hard to believe she isn’t stopped and questioned, which is not a plot hole but a betrayal of the character as presented. Kruger is better elsewhere, however, in scenes of Iranian street life, where merely her air and loving looks to locals suggests what her voiceover also jumps in to tell us, an affinity for the place seeping in, an affinity that possibly clouds her judgement when the stakes rise and she is asked to infiltrate an electronics company, falling for the playboy, Farhad (Cas Anvar), who runs it.

Playing opposite him, Kruger is truly in her element, never betraying whether her affection for him is true or a put-on, evoked in a scene on a bench at a family wedding where in tenderly touching his face while definitively stating she hopes his ex-wife knows who he belongs to now, a moment which feels so formidable in her tone you wonder where this was when she was going through airport security. This question, in fact, yields more suspense than the more action-oriented avenues, Kruger making her love or not-love so hard to decipher that the open end might have been an electrifying summation of it, leaving her character to wander in the wilderness of a secret identity, if “The Operative” had more forcefully latched onto this idea in the first place.

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