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Early 20C history from a gimlet eye of deceit, violence, and power
on 12 April 2012
This is a very fun, if largely apocryphal, version of many of the key events that shaped the 20C. You have a mysterious man, Reilly, who pops up where something absolutely decisive is happening. Ostensively a British agent, he mixes self-enrichment, his personal life, and politics in machinations that can only be called guileful, ruthless, and for the most part effective. He is one of those ambiguous figures that appear at historical turning points, sparking endless debates about whether they are blatant opportunists or the simplest of idealists. You could compare him to Alcibiades, Wallenstein, or perhaps Richard Clarke. The man is a walking paradox - brilliant and passionate, yet perhaps also a greedy sociopathic visionary - and the best part of it is, Sam Neill pulls it off with complete believability, with a stellar group of lesser-known character actors.
In terms of plot, Reilly is present for the early maneuvering to gain access to oil - the key to industrialization and mechanized warfare, the bases for 20C power - and then is a player in the Russo-Japanese war, a maintenance worker who steals German shipping blueprints (and an industrialist who does the same thing), and finally a (counter?) revolutionary in the transition of Russia into the Soviet Union. This is a fun and fascinating view into these events, a re-rendering that reminds the viewer that none of these things was set in stone for the history books but could have turned out very differently. To me as a history buff, it makes it come alive in the most wonderful way. Of course, no one knows if Reilly did all these things, so this can only be taken as fiction, but you witness Lenin, Stalin, and a parade of British politicians and bureaucrats and many others.
Along the way, Reilly introduces new methods into the British secret service, legitimizing the most ruthless manipulation of people in the cause that he is currently championing. For example in one episode (***spoiler alert***), while apparently out of the spy business and a financier in Russia, he seduces a married aristocrat, who wants to divorce in order to marry him; Reilly then pays off her husband with a settlement, who happens to be Defense Minister in the Tzar's government, legitimizing a commercial agent Reilly needs, and pulls off the "arms deal of the century", gaining intelligence for the British, beating an old rival, and hugely enriching himself at the same time. Some cry scandal (he is already married), others see genius.
Neill also creates a fascinating character that is revealed slowly throughout the entire series. It is a masterpiece of subtlety and moral ambiguity that is never reduced to a simple formula, but stands as an enigma. The ending is a surprise, yet so typically Reilly. That makes it excellent drama. The sets are also period perfect, evoking a vanished world.
My wife and I are embarking on a viewing of British spy films, kind of the mirror view of my love of mafia film. This is up there with Smiley's People. Recommended with enthusiasm.