Review: The Operative

Year: 2019
Runtime: 120 Minutes
Director/Writer: Yuval Adler
Stars: Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, Cas Anvar

By Mique Watson

Adapted from the novel “The English Teacher”, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a film wherein for almost the entire run time, we have no idea what and who it is about: is about Rachel, a woman recruited to infiltrate a company potentially involved with nuclear weapons in Tehran (nukes you say? Would’ve been nice if we could’ve seen them). Is it about Rachel’s handler, Thomas (Martin Freeman), or is it about her target, Farhad (Cas Anvar)? Is it about the moral, political, or societal impacts of espionage–or the demoralizing things one would have to do to succeed in this particular line of business? By the end, I had absolutely no bloody clue. I suppose one could say it works at least as well as its bland title “The Operative”, which describes Rachel (Diane Krueger) who, throughout the entirety of this enigmatic picture, is a frustrating cypher.

This story is told in a non-linear fashion; we jump back and forth in time between the disappearance of Rachel–why she’d chosen to go off the map. Adler does manage to conjure up of some genuine moments of anxiety and stress; yet, this is a tragic case of the parts bearing more impact than the whole. Yes, the film as a whole is pretty dull–and when it isn’t dull, it’s infuriating.

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The film opens with our conduit, Thomas (Martin Freeman)–Rachel’s former handler. Amidst the drab beige outdoor colour palette, he receives a phone call; on the other end we hear: “My father died. Again”. It’s Rachel–and she’s been missing, and he wants answers. We eventually get to those answers, and believe me; they’re as predictable as the film’s title.

Is it about the moral, political, or societal impacts of espionage–or the demoralizing things one would have to do to succeed in this particular line of business? By the end, I had absolutely no bloody clue. I suppose one could say it works at least as well as its bland title “The Operative”

Before I totally rip this generic pile of “ugh” apart, credit must be given where it is due: Krueger tries really hard. She gives an expertly steely, yet vulnerable performance; her beauty and talent shine through, despite the bland, almond hair and muted tones she wears (which, I suppose is done in an effort to convey that she, as a spy, must blend; her person mirrors the film’s drab, muted colour palette). We’re informed that Rachel has had a difficult childhood–that this has supposedly played a role in her character choosing to live such a dangerous life.

I haven’t read the book, so if there’s more to Rachel there, I couldn’t possibly say; here though, there’s just so little meat to her. She, like Tehran, is full of secrets. Apparently, Rachel’s mission is to travel to Tehran and pose as an English teacher; in doing so, she must infiltrate an electronics company in an effort to sell defective nuclear tech (tech with tracking devices!) to Iranian intelligence…and them some stuff about trade sanctions in case you were still paying attention. Except this is barely the focus of the story: the ACTUAL story is about Rachel falling madly in love with the company’s founder, Farhad–a man whose only noticeable characteristics are his handsome face and even more handsome bank account. In no time they’re flirting–I wish I was kidding.

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This is a story of a woman who can’t be fully controlled by the men around her; but above all else, this is a story about a woman written by a man.

Yes, Tehran is full of secrets–yet the only secrets Rachel ostensibly shows interest in are the inner workings of Farhad’s heart. It’s such a shame we never really know just what she sees in him–the chemistry Kruger and Anvar share are about as noticeable as a needle in a haystack. As a matter of fact, for the most part, I was under the impression that this seduction was all part of her mission.

This is a story of a woman who can’t be fully controlled by the men around her; but above all else, this is a story about a woman written by a man. Rachel is just about the most frustrating female spy I’ve ever seen–one who happens to embody all the nastiest stereotypes of women: she instantly gets emotionally attached to her target (and sleeps with him almost just as instantly), she’s unprofessional, she’s unreliable, and she is utterly incompetent when it comes to following basic instructions (there’s a scene when she yells “I follow your protocols like a fucking robot”–I burst out into laughter). She lies to her superiors about being adopted for a reason so risible, it’s insulting; it doesn’t even have any bearing on the plot whatsoever. Every decision she makes revolves around Farhad; almost every significant conversation she has whilst not in his presence is about him.

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In the end, we’re left with a frustrating effort which completely fails at offering us any form of narrative catharsis. Throughout the entirety of this crime-drama (“crime” “drama”), there is precisely one terrifying scene: it involves Rachel driving a truck full of weapons into the isolated mountains over the Turkish border; one thing leads to another, and she ends up being surrounded by a group of men she’d never met. But aside from that, this film is just one anti-climactic scene after another. And then, “The Operative” just … ends. I haven’t seen a conclusion this abrupt since 2012’s “The Devil Inside”; perhaps Rachel is meant to be unknowable? By the end, It appears that Krueger is just as confused and bewildered as we are.

0.5 stars

Signature Entertainment presents The Operative on DVD and Digital HD from 13th January

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