Review of ‘Rogue Agent’: The Spy Who Wasn’t a Spy
Co-written with Michael Bronner (The Mauritanian), co-writers and directors Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson base their first feature film on a remarkable true story, one whose final chapter may not yet be written. We are surrounded by fraud on a daily basis – emails from a Nigerian Prince and spam calls for an expired car warranty that never existed, to name a couple of mainstream schemes. But the real-life saga of Rogue Agent’s Robert Freegard takes fraud and the long con to a whole new level.
We begin in 1993 as Freegard (James Norton, “Happy Valley”) is working as a barkeep in a pub. He bewitches three college kids with the story that he’s an undercover MI5 agent, and that he needs their help to infiltrate an Irish Republican Army (IRA) group working on campus. Known for their bombings at the time, this is a dangerous and important mission, and he convinces the students that they are field spies in training and serving their country, though nothing is more important than their loyalty to him. Of course, Freegard is not MI5.
The film leaps forward nine years, and we find Robert working as a car salesman. He identifies local attorney Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton, Tamara Drewe, 2010) as his next target. After some initial skepticism, she falls hard for his charms and his stories. Alice also serves as the film’s narrator and explains how Robert will look people in the eyes, holding the gaze for just the right amount of time to gain their trust. We watch as their relationship plays out, costing Alice so much of her life. But Robert underestimates Alice’s resolve. She doesn’t appreciate being played like a fool. She performs her own investigative work and enlists the help of a police detective (Shazad Latif, “Toast of London”) in an attempt to track down Robert, as well as Sophie (Marisa Abela), one of the original college students who is still missing.
A private investigator informs Alice that scammers are either mad, sad, or bad. We readily know which category Robert belongs in. He’s a master of hiding in plain sight and reading people. He believes “everyone has a story they want to hear” and he exposes that vulnerability. It appears his only cause was to line his own pockets with other people’s money. But it’s not that simple. He also seemed to thrive on the perverse power trip in keeping people isolated and under his control – a form of psychological warfare.
The film shows us how Robert was caught, but it also details what’s happened since 2009. If there is a lesson here, it’s to put the past in the past, once you make peace with it – and don’t believe swindlers who are interested in your money. The film offers some excellent drama, strong performances from Ms. Arterton and Mr. Norton, and a short course in the psychology of the sociopath. For more information on Freegard, check out the Netflix docuseries, The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman.