Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Reilly: Ace Of Spies: An Affair With A Married Woman (1983)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Jim Goddard
Sam Neill, Jeanne Crowley, Leo McKern, Norman Rodway, John Rhys-Davies, Michele Copsey, Peter Egan
Music by Harry Rabinowitz
Based on the book by R.H. Bruce Lockhart


An Affair With A Married Woman is the first episode of the Reilly: Ace Of Spies Thames television series. Although, based on the biography, Ace Of Spies by R.H. Bruce Lockhart, this series has taken many liberties when recounting the tales of Sidney Reilly’s life of espionage. This may because, Reilly himself is a bit of an enigma. Most biographies on the man differ in the telling of the events of his life. It appears that Reilly was a bit of a ‘story-teller’ and intermingled amongst snatches of truth there was also quite a bit of balderdash. With that in mind, Sidney Reilly’s first encounter and subsequent affair with Margaret Thomas (the married woman of the title) is a bit off the mark. But never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.

This episode is a bit of a slow starter, and many of the details are deliberately vague so as to keep the viewer guessing who the characters are. Good and bad are not easily discernible at the beginning. But as the story unfolds, character allegiances and motivations become clear.

As this is a period drama, and as I’ve mentioned, based on a true story, there is a sense of realism to the show. The costumes, sets, and art-direction in general, are all very low-key and appear authentic.

The show also does not feature any far-fetched action sequences. In fact, at times it almost seems like the film-makers have gone out of their way not to show any action. Two of the more pivotal and violent scenes take place off screen – we only see the aftermath and the repercussions.

The episode begins in 1901, aboard a train travelling across Russia. The train is stopped by a group of men who look suspiciously like bandits, but they are in fact the authorities. Three passengers are removed from the train – Professor Rosenblum, from Odessa University; Reverend Thomas (Sebastian Shaw), a crusty old pastor; and Margaret Thomas (Jeananne Crowley), the Reverend’s much younger wife. As they are taken away, Rosenblum hides some secret documents in the Pastor’s luggage.

They are taken to Baku where they are interrogated, especially Rosenblum. The interrogator is a man named Tanyatos (John Rhys-Davies), who suspects Rosenblum of some crime but refuses to say what. But as he cannot find any evidence, he chooses to keep him (and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas) under arrest. This isn’t so bad, as the prison also happens to be the local hotel, so all parties are put up rather comfortably – or at least as comfortable as you can be in that part of the world.

Rosenblum knows that it is only a matter of time before Tanyatos finds out the truth so he formulates a plan to escape. This involves slowly ingratiating himself upon Mrs. Thomas. At first, she ignores his advances, but at heart she is a lonely woman who only married the lecherous old Pastor out of convenience – and for money.

Once Rosenblum has Margaret on side, he suggests that one night she comes to him in his room. This, well apart from the obvious, is so that the guards will not check his room that night. If they think he is ‘occupied’ then there is little chance of him attempting to escape. But escape he does, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas are left trapped in Baku to deal with the aftermath – this entails languishing in prison (a real prison) for nineteen weeks until the British Government can broker a deal.

Back in London, Fleet Street hears the sordid tale of a British agent having an affair with a married woman, and a scandal erupts. Rosenblum conveniently goes into hiding. Meanwhile, the ordeal has taken it’s toll on Reverend Thomas and he has a stroke, leaving him invalided. Margaret is then left to defend her honour on her own. Feeling the heat from the press, the British Secret Service under the leadership of Captain Mansfield Cumming, known as ‘C’ (Norman Rodway) decide to distance themselves from Rosenblum, and claim that he is not an agent in their employ.

But what is all the fuss about really? How come Rosenblum had to get out of Baku so urgently? Well the secret papers which he had stolen outlined Russia’s oil drilling program. Naturally the Russian’s want them back. Through, Tanyatos they expected to retrieve the stolen documents, but once that failed they had to use other means. In London, the Russian’s are represented by Basil Zaharov (Leo McKern) who is a resourceful power broker, who controls his own secret army of minions.

At the end of the episode everything works out well for Sidney and Margaret. Reverend Thomas finally passes away and our scandalous couple get married. At this point, Rosenblum chooses to take Margaret’s maiden name as his surname. He will no longer be Sigmund Rosenblum - but Sidney Reilly. And the adventure is only beginning – Cumming has a new mission for Reilly. It’s in Manchuria, and that’s where he heads next with his new bride in tow.

Sam Neill cuts a fine figure as the man who would become Sidney Reilly. He has a hint of cruelty about him – which was utilised in the third of the Omen films, The Final Conflict. You wonder just how far this character would manipulate people for his own ends. Less successfully cast is Jeanne Crowley as Margaret Thomas. She lacks conviction in her scenes with Neill, and it is hard to believe she has fallen for the scoundrel.

An Affair With A Married Woman is an intriguing opener, but it is far from ground breaking television. Thankfully, the series still had it’s best to come.