Maybe a little unexpectedly, Amazon Studios have given us a very watchable and classily upscale espionage drama-thriller in the spirit of John le Carré. Danish film-maker Janus Metz Pedersen directs and Olen Steinhauer adapts his own much-admired spy novella, centred on two former lovers in the cloak and dagger business who meet for dinner in a chi-chi Californian restaurant. The story is in fact inspired by a BBC TV drama that had nothing to do with spies: The Song of Lunch starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman.
Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is a CIA officer haunted by a disastrous event eight years earlier, when he was at the Vienna station: a plane hijacking ended in a hundred deaths because the terrorists were somehow able to anticipate the authorities’ counter-attack. And he is still heartbroken because his CIA colleague Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), with whom he was and is deeply in love, broke up with him just afterwards, abandoned the service and is now a placidly contented wife and mother in Carmel, California.
Now Henry’s hardbitten station chief Vic Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) tells him there is evidence they had a mole – and Henry is now tasked with the emotionally painful duty of reopening the wounds and interviewing the suspects, including the shifty and evasive operative Bill (Jonathan Pryce) who is these days in semi-retirement, muttering resentfully into his whisky in a London pub. But Henry also has to travel to Carmel to ask Celia out to a restaurant to interrogate her over dinner. And Vic doesn’t want loose ends or official inquiries: if Celia’s answers are unsatisfactory, Henry has Vic’s authority to terminate her with extreme prejudice.
The result is a complex confrontation over an Instagram-perfect meal with dizzying flashbacks to Vienna and flashbacks within flashbacks to Henry’s service in Moscow 12 years before that. It is the classic Le Carré conflation of three different sorts of betrayal: personal, professional and patriotic. Pine and Newton handle this choreography with maturity and style; Newton particularly shows how impressive she is with the right role.