“Cambridge Spies” is a new drama hit from BBC. It portrays the story of the famous (or infamous) Cambridge Five: Kim Philby (Toby Stephens), Guy Burgess (Tom Hollander), Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), Donald Maclean (Rupert Penry-Jones) and John Cairncross.
The four-episode film certainly deserves your close attention thanks to the solid BBC production, good acting of the four leading actors, a thorough historical examination of relationships between the men, and a near-perfect integrity of the whole project. The film has its strong sides, as well as some minor drawbacks. It has got mixed reception from the critics, but who ever listens to critics when it comes to a gripping story narrated with the traditional excellent type of sets and cast that has never left BBC dramas recently. It is fortunate that the story was first put to the screen by BBC, rather than some Hollywood studio. The Americans would certainly make it a melodramatic epic movie, claiming that they are the sole winners of the WWII and that they were badly deceived by the British and the Soviets.
“Cambridge Spies” covers roughly the 20-year period from 1934 to 1954, from Cambridge where the four future geniuses of espionage (Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean) meet, through the war in Spain, Paris shortly before invasion, London during war time, Washington DC, to the white cliffs of Dover that Burgess and Maclean see for the last time in their lives on leaving England for ever. It touches upon such pages of history as pre-war warm attitudes to Hitler among English aristocrats including the Royal Family, Enigma codes, A-bomb secrets. The span of real events is enormous, and in every case some one or all four of the group are involved, as they worked for the British Intelligence agencies, BBC, and the Royal Family.
But what this film is really about, to my mind, is the relationship between the four men and their way in treachery; their idealism at the beginning and struggle with themselves at the end. It is a film about a life of a spy, when his every move is being monitored by both sides, when he is not free to leave, when he is supposed to throw his personal happiness aside if his masters require.
Kim Philby has to leave his wife, an Austrian immigrant; Donald Maclean has to stay in when he wants to stay out and with his family. Anthony Blunt begins as the strongest, the driving force and the one taking care of the rest, but becomes a man with shaking hands and shaken spirit. Guy Burgess has to deceive his former boyfriend and pretend to be what he is not for the cause; he drenches himself in sex and drinking. But what keeps them all together, no matter what happens to them and to the country, is their friendship. It is the real thing for them, something that doesn’t let one fall.
By the end of their careers they become different men, in a sense. Philby becomes the major agent, with Blunt retreating to the shadow, Maclean experiencing family and career crisis, Burgess further misbehaving and almost always drunk. But friendship never fails them, they are ready to shield each other from danger and forgive small sins.
A great deal of attention is given to the topic of homosexuality, since both Blunt and Burgess are homosexuals. But if Burgess is quite open about it, regularly visits public lavatories in search of a new boy, Blunt is a quiet type, only sometimes giving way to feelings. The all-men establishment seems to be quite homosexual on the whole, with top people in Cambridge being gay, and closing their eyes on the little sins of promising students from good families, although sodomy is still a major offence.
The drawbacks of this film include some points of historical inaccuracy, and putting the fifth man, John Cairncross, rather in shadow. So, the film appears to be of the Cambridge Four instead of Cambridge Five.
I highly recommend buying “Cambridge Spies”. You will enjoy the movie. Some compare it with “Brideshead Revisited”, but the comparison is far from the truth. “Cambridge Spies” is much more thrilling, vivid, emotional, controversial. Another success of the BBC drama team bound to be a favourite with viewers.