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Case Number 05600

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Cambridge Spies

BBC Video // 2003 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 17th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Adam Arseneau was the fifth member of the Cambridge Five. He joined up after being kicked out of the Jacksons.

The Charge

The story of the most infamous spies in British history.

Opening Statement

Naked men and espionage: It's a winning combination. BBC Video presents a four-part miniseries chronicling the misadventures of the Cambridge Five—the most notoriously successful spy ring in the history of modern-day Britain—decked out on a snazzy two-disc DVD. But does it chill, thrill, and titillate like a good spy epic should? Read on to find out!

Facts of the Case

In 1934, four friends from Cambridge—the handsomest, smartest, and brightest men of their class—find themselves disgusted by the decadence and opulence of upper-class British society: Guy Burgess, the most flamingly ostentatious spy ever in the history of humankind; Anthony Blunt, the cool and calculating double-agent; Kim Philby, a passionate, dedicated, and astonishingly successful spy; and Donald Maclean, a man torn between his personal life and his politics. On a quest for social justice, they find themselves drawn towards communism as an alternative to the disgusting decadence of Cambridge life, and soon find themselves being actively recruited as spies for the Russians.

Fueled by their youthful passion, they begin to extol the virtues of Communism to everyone in earshot—until their Russian benefactors suggest a more clandestine approach. They begin instead to act their positions in British high society as men of Cambridge, Eton, and heavy privilege; to put themselves into places of high power and influence in order to benefit the socialist cause. For 20 years, the men risk their lives, living double identities to become perfect specimens of everything they hate and despise, in order to better their country by betraying everything it stands for. In the process, they become the most infamous spies in Britain's history!

The Evidence

"We're at war with Germany. Hitler and Stalin are technically allies, which means our position is different…We used to be simple traitors. Now we're traitors in wartime."—Kim Philby, Cambridge Spies

Cambridge Spies can be a bit tough at times to digest, even for a stiff-as-a-board BBC miniseries. Not only does the back story require a fair bit of historical homework and knowledge of key events during World War II to understand and appreciate properly, the film gets a bit heavy-handed romanticizing the allure and nobility of the notorious spies. Sure, this romanticizing makes for great tales of dastardly deeds (we all love James Bond after all, the scoundrel), but it does pontificate about the morality of the characters a wee bit. After all, as stylish as the Cambridge boys may act, they were spies, and this miniseries was based on real-life events. It's easy to forget with all the pontificating going on.

But then again, even something as simple as guilt isn't a clear-cut assessment. From the perspective of the four young men, while the British sit around during the buildup to World War II and get fat on gin and cigars, the Russians are taking a stand against fascism. Trying to make a difference, these idealistic youths declare all-out war against Hitler and the atrocities of the Third Reich. Having seen firsthand in Spain the carnage caused by Hitler, they vow to do everything they can in order to fight the evil swallowing up Europe. Unfortunately, they end up placing their cards with the Russians in the fight for the future of Europe. Therefore, when Britain ultimately declares war on Germany, and Stalin awkwardly remains allied with Hitler, they realize they have a serious problem on their hands. They cease to become simple traitors, and now become traitors during wartime, facing execution if caught. Worse, when the war ends, history has the British as the heroes, while the Russians are the communist enemies, with Cold War paranoia rapidly reaching a boiling point. Complicated indeed.

Cambridge Spies eschews the gun-toting, sports car-driving British spy image of popular culture, opting instead for the slightly pedantic, historically accurate version of espionage, which apparently is a crashing bore. The wash of faces, people, and places in historical context can be overwhelming, especially spread over four different episodes and almost 20 years of British and European history. Frankly, it gets hard to keep track of which side the boys are on—possibly because, at times, the boys themselves have no idea. Throughout the film, they put their friendship first, and as the political climate changes throughout Europe…well, good luck keeping track of things. Cambridge Spies places the boys in every possible location, from meeting with Franco in Spain during the Spanish civil war, standing in the wreckage after the Nazi bombing of Guernica, and even drinking double gins with the Queen in London. It's a tough gig, being a spy. To be totally honest, it would be a lot easier if people were shooting at them all the time—at least we tell whom to root for. Alas, we don't even see a pistol until two hours into the miniseries, and it's a good three hours before anybody really gets it good with a gun.

But there is more to the espionage game than Walther PPK pistols and martinis, thank you very much. Problem is, in terms of plot and story, this miniseries is obtusely difficult to evaluate. When reviewing Cambridge Spies, the pontificating idealism and romanticism leads to horrendously corny dialogue. Characters open their mouths and say the most unlikely things imaginable, horribly idealistic and romantic things that no real person would ever say, ever. Style points for certain, but realism takes a hit. The acting ranges from pleasantly reserved to wildly over-the-top performances from the four principal cast members, and they all manage first-rate portrayals in their own way, particularly Toby Stephens and Tom Hollander (Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, respectively), who perform quite magnificently.

As mentioned earlier, without some historical background, the story of Cambridge Spies loses some of its edge. Fortunately for us, this has been taken into account, and the BBC has been kind enough to include some nice supplemental material on the second DVD that smoothes over the incongruent bits quite nicely. The best of the features, a 45-minute History Channel documentary entitled "Spy Web: The Cambridge Spies," is included on the second disc. This piece fills in all the tiny historical and cultural holes left untouched through the miniseries. A brilliant addition, no doubt…though the documentary itself is not without its flaws. It adds a much-needed serious and negative perspective towards the actions of the Cambridge five and their actions, but inexplicably gets oddly melodramatic and swells the evil-sounding string instruments whenever the narrator says words like "communist" and "homosexuals." This is both perplexing and stupid at the same time.

Also included is "A Cambridge Spies Historical Scrapbook," a collage of incredible material including BBC news obituary broadcasts of the spies, an appearance from Kim Philby on Soviet television at the age of 75, footage of Anthony Blunt from 1965 taking us through Buckingham Palace on an art appreciation tour, and footage of Blunt's testimony in 1979, confessing his transgressions on camera. This material is nothing short of astonishing in its coolness, and though it barely amounts to half an hour of footage total, the ragtag collection of old archival material places the story in a real-life context so effectively, that without it, this DVD set would be a mere shadow of itself. Best of all, each of the supplementary features (including the previously mentioned History Channel biography) is thoughtfully subtitled. Nice.

Rounding out the material are the requisite photo gallery and trailers. Finally, two of the episodes include commentary tracks by writer Peter Moffat, director Tim Fywell, and producer Mark Shivas, providing some background info about the actors and the shoot. Overall, this is a mixed bag. The commentary is sporadic at best, and sycophantic in its observations, which are few and far between. Always nice to have a commentary, of course, but this one manages to be duller than the subject matter (no small feat, har har).

For a BBC television miniseries, the transfer looks moderately pleasing, with decent black levels and detail, although PAL ghosting is noticeable from time to time, especially during paused images. The cinematography is quite lovely, and as stated on the director's commentary track, the producers are quite proud of the look of this miniseries, likening it to the look of film, which it does more often than not. Some graininess is evident during darker scenes, and the presentation starts to come apart when examined under magnification, with edge enhancement and artifacts cropping up a small bit. But overall, this is a pleasing enough transfer. The Dolby 2.0 track is nicely efficient, with decent bass response, dialogue smack in the center, and the ambient music spread out across the channels. A surround track would have been overkill here; there isn't much more than talking going on, and the Dolby 2.0 track performs its function with efficiency and poise. The only negative bone of contention in terms of the technical presentation regards the subtitles, which are heavily truncated. This is unfortunate, and much of the subtle English wit and banter gets lots in the translation to text.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As much as the subject intellectually stimulated and intrigued me, I had the hardest time watching Cambridge Spies. After more than 15 minutes, I started idly doing other things, wandering away from the television screen and generally not paying attention. Fifteen minutes at a time was all I was able to manage without my attention spiraling wildly out of control…and with a running time of about four hours…

Oh boy.

Closing Statement

Long-winded, convoluted, pretentious, romanticizing, and a bit on the dense side, Cambridge Spies is about as far removed from the world of James Bond as one can be. That does not make it bad, mind you, but an action-packed thrill ride it ain't.

Here's the bottom line with Cambridge Spies: There is a lot here for people who have the patience and constitution for a dry, idealistic espionage BBC miniseries stretching four hours long. If you see it through to the end, it's a nicely ambitious and romantic sort of project, but its length and inherent dullness will detract most people from getting into it. The series easily could have been an hour shorter with no damage to the story.

Nevertheless, Cambrigde Spies features some great acting, a downright fascinating story (if a little on the long-winded and convoluted side), snazzy extra features, and a moderately pleasing transfer. All in all, a nice little bit of watching for those who get excited at the thought of historical biopics or Tom Clancy novels…sans submarine, of course.

Also, Bond films generally feature a lot less guy-on-guy action.

Well, they do.

I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm just saying.

The Verdict

If you are an Eton man, then no doubt you shall find Cambridge Spies to be a jolly good time. Otherwise…enjoy four hours of naked men prancing about like gits.

No, just kidding. Spies are cool, and you know it.

The verdict? Not guilty, but with a provision stating that this BBC show won't appeal to everyone, so be forewarned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 82
Extras: 79
Acting: 85
Story: 72
Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary Tracks on Episodes One and Four, Featuring Writer Peter Moffat, Director Tim Fywell, and Producer Mark Shivas
• Documentary: "Spy Web: The Cambridge Spies"
• "A Cambridge Spies Historical Scrapbook" Collection of Rare Interviews and News Clips
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers

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