We're over half a century from the 1960s when there were only five major Hollywood studios, and audiences recognized them by name and filming brand. However, despite decades of entertainment realignment, a few remain: Disney instantly calls to mind princesses, for example, and Warner Bros., the home of musicals and fantasy. MGM only has one brand left now, but it's a biggie: James Bond, the elegantly refined British spy. When Amazon purchased the studios outright, it was to obtain that franchise. So perhaps it is not a surprise that the streaming service that came with that sale, now branded MGM+, kicks off with an espionage thriller in a similar vein, A Spy Among Friends.
Though the series is no match for Ian Flemings' exotic locales and punnily named women, the real-life story behind it is almost so unbelievable you might think it fiction. Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known to his friends as Kim, was a British intelligence officer and double agent for the USSR. He was nearly caught in 1951 when two other spies, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess, defected, and MI-5 fingered him as the one who tipped him off. But Philby's inside connections and gentleman spy friends stood by him, eventually exonerating him until 1961 when Anatoliy Golitsyn defected and fingered him as guilty.
Philby should have been caught then; history records his alcoholism has reached such levels that taking him in would have been easy. Instead, the same upper-class old boys network that insisted on his innocence the first time let him slip away to Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life. A Spy Among Friends begins with this ending, as Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) is caught, and BFF Nicholas Elliott (Damien Lewis), a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI-6, is tasked with obtaining a full confession instead of neighboring MI-5 and is then forced to explain how he was allowed to escape.
The latter part of the story serves as a framing device, as Elliott, all brittle upper-class charm, finds himself at the receiving end of questions from the working-class Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin). She is not impressed with his ice-breaking attempts, his soft negging at her northern accent, or his vaguely jovial sarcasm as finding himself being interrogated, as if this was all some odd misunderstanding. When he bristles at being asked about his years of friendship with Philby, she is direct with him that the most high-ranking double agent in the western hemisphere escaped capture on his watch and "well, I never thought he'd run" as an excuse as to why was not going to cut it.
Gentleman spy stories are, by their nature, white male fantasies of being so privileged they can get away with murder in the name of saving the world. James Bond is the embodiment of the archetype; he has oodles of money, high-end connections, is proficient in every type of athletic sport, dresses for dinner, and gets the girl -- several of them, usually. Audiences rarely interrogate the assumptions that go into such a character, as evidenced by the calls for a Jane Bond or a BIPOC James Bond, as changing either gender or skin color would immediately change how such a character moves through the world.
A Spy Among Friends explores that privilege from the moment Lewis' Elliott steps on the screen, prattling on about cricket scores. MI-5 agent Thomas is exactly the type of office drone he looks down upon — she's not even attractive or well-spoken enough to be flirted with, a la Moneypenny. She, meanwhile, does not give a flying fig about his old boys' network, seeing it for what it is: A place where boats are not rocked, and someone like Philby, being the "right sort of person," was given not just the benefit of the doubt, but space to flourish right under their noses, as it was somehow inconceivable a man born into the "governing class" of England would betray it.
This focus on the upper-class Secret Intelligence Service and its failures is what takes A Spy Among Friends and puts it in a class of its own. Pearce is brilliant as Philby, desperately trying to disguise a high-wire act using every human he can get his hands on. But it's Lewis that carries this series, as a man who is being confronted with the demise of the James Bond fairy-tale. As this series tells it, Elliott didn't let Philby run. Lewis plays a man who, under the chattering icicle demeanor, has just been humiliated. The man he's loved as a friend for decades exposed as having used him, and he too class blind to see, and still giving him a foolish benefit of the doubt, even after the betrayal unmasked.
Martin, too, is fantastic as a steady, unflinching light shining on the incompetencies of the British SIS. MI-6 and MI-5 are somewhat treated as interchangeable in American references to the British spy service, but it breaks down easily: MI-6 is where the upper class gets hired, MI-5 is not. Under her gaze, both Elliott and the audience are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that MI-6 was stunningly incompetent and that the sins of the country's dependence on a hierarchical class system go well beyond a single royal family's drama.
If the series were just the three of them in a pair of two-hander scenes, Martin and Lewis, Lewis and Pearce over six episodes, this would be one of the best series of 2023. Sadly though, other characters find their way in. As always, the weakest part is when Americans come to call — the CIA, used here as a unifying force, is a disruption the series doesn't need. But when the series keeps its eye on the spies, it sings.
Technically, A Spy Among Friends is a "work of imagination" based on the tale of Philby — Martin's character is one of those flights of fancy. But so too is Elliott's story, as the series gives him not only the benefit of the doubt in letting Philby go but also plays to the fiction that Elliott's debrief of his friend produced some sort of intelligence of value. In reality, it did not; it's another small misfire that the series needs to pretend MI-6 was not useless the entire way down.
The series debut on MGM+ is the second time in six months it's been used as the high-end flagship launch series for a streaming service. In December 2022, the newly formed ITVX (mashing together of BritBox and all ITV's other streaming outlets) arrived on the back of Lewis, Martin, and Pearce. One can see why this was an attractive proposition, not just the A-list names but the excellent upending of the well-worn genre. With Amazon now backing MGM+ in marketing, let's hope the series manages to land American eyeballs, as this is one spy tale that should be exposed to the light as much as possible.
A Spy Among Friends debuts on MGM+ on Sunday, March 12, with two episodes, with one a week to follow on Sundays through April 9, 2023.