The film The Angel, Netflix’s latest thriller about a real-life Egyptian man who spied for Israel in the 1970s, revisits a turbulent time in Middle Eastern history.
With the exception of those who read Uri Bar-Joseph’s book (the basis for this film). The story of Ashraf Marwan is likely to be unfamiliar to most audiences. And it really is a remarkable tale. The son-in-law of an Egyptian president, Marwan eventually became a political power player in Cairo. Only to prevent chaos by providing intelligence to the Israeli government. It’s the kind of true story that naturally catches Hollywood’s attention.
Directed by Ariel Vromen (The Iceman, Criminal) and written by David Arata (Children of Men). The Angel is a competent account of Marwan’s dangerous attempt to stop a bloody conflict between Egypt and Israel. Star Marwan Kenzari turns in a solid performance, and there’s some clever 1970s period detail. There are few major blunders here. But the latest Netflix release feels far too standard for such an unconventional story, slowly emerging as a passable, by-the-numbers thriller. In other words, it’s a sporadically interesting, mostly dull history lesson.
The Double Agent & The Threat Of War
In the early 1970s, Ashraf (Kenzari) is part of one of the world’s most powerful governments. He’s married to Mona (Maisa Abd Elhadi), the daughter of Egypt’s President Nasser (Waleed Zuaiter), but the nation’s leader has little respect for his son-in-law. Ashraf frequently disagrees with the president when it comes to matters of foreign policy, but he also relies on him for financial stability. While Ashraf is currently pursuing a degree in London, he has a gambling problem that further complicates the relationship.
Down on his luck and further isolated from the president. Ashraf makes a desperate call to the Israeli ambassador with useful information that could prepare the country for a war with Egypt. He hangs up before he can connect to anyone important. But the call will still come back to haunt him.
In the meantime, Ashraf’s life changes with the death of President Nasser. He is immediately succeeded by his vice president. With the destruction of corruption, a top priority for now-President Sadat (Sasson Gabai). Ashraf finds a place for himself in the new administration, climbing the ranks to a position of power.
And then the Israeli government comes calling. A top Mossad spy by the code name of “Adam” (Toby Kebbell) contacts Ashraf, looking to find out what he knows. Before he even realizes what’s happening, the top-ranking Egyptian official becomes a reluctant double agent. That working in the shadows to prevent catastrophe.
Compelling Character Gets Lost In Spy Narrative
In the hands of Kenzari (who will star as Jafar in Disney’s upcoming Aladdin remake). There’s a certain sense of mystery to Ashraf, which would seem to work in the film’s favor. When he’s schmoozing with Gaddafi (Tsahi Halevi) and other world leaders, he can look perfectly suave and debonair. But Kenzari plays our hero with a nervous energy much of the time. That giving him this blank look that implies the threat of personal and global doom at every moment. His visage is the film’s complex and enigmatic map to success.
Too bad the filmmakers don’t really utilize his performance.
The Angel has a handful of interesting characters at its disposal. That from Kenzari‘s weary take on the classic double agent to Kebbell‘s principled and dedicated family man. To go along with this foundation, director Vromen and screenwriter Arata introduce a number of potentially thoughtful themes.
Including the separation of family and work in the world of spy-craft and the difficult clash between national concerns and global interests. But we’ve seen all of this on display before in much better films. There’s not enough additional substance to justify this shift from three-dimensional characters to traditional narrative mechanics.
Ashraf and Adam may be reduced to straight-laced men who served their respective nations with dignity. But the supporting cast is somehow even more slighted by the storytelling approach, especially the film’s few female characters.
Maisa Abd Elhadi‘s Mona Marwan suffers so much over the course of this journey. But how does she feel about any of this? I don’t think the film cares too much. The same goes for Hannah Ware‘s Diana, who pops in and out of the story without much definition.
Strange Lack Of Tension
Some of these character missteps would be forgivable if The Angel generated a certain level of tension over the course of its story. Yet, except for a few isolated chase sequences (most of them involving Ashraf running away from an anonymous agent or two), there aren’t many thrills in what purports to be a splashy spy thriller. The film mirrors the classic fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf in Ashraf’s journey, but that only serves to make the ultimate conclusion feel like something of an inevitability.
In addition, the film feels just a bit too cluttered in its second half. Once Ashraf is forced to deal with his family, his own government, the Mossad agents, and a vengeful Nasser official, things become even more scattershot and inconsistent. It’s not that The Angel is ever convoluted or difficult to follow, but it’s increasingly obvious that there won’t be a satisfying conclusion to all of these detours. And without Ashraf as a clear emotional and moral center, it’s hard to be attached to much of what’s happening.
The Angel: Conclusion
This is not a bad film, but the word “flat” just keeps ringing in my head. The Angel runs through the motions with efficiency, turning its attention to a straightforward template devoid of innovation or complications. It’s important to display capable filmmaking, but by drifting too far into familiar territory, even the best twists and turns of the story don’t quite land.
Sure, that simplicity and old-fashioned usage of “important” biopic tropes will prove to be enjoyable for some viewers. For me, it just made the film something of a lackluster drag.
Genre: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Ariel Vromen
Stars: Toby Kebbell, Marwan Kenzari, Hannah Ware
Written By: David Arata
In Theaters: Sep 14, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Sep 14, 2018
Runtime: 103 minutes
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR THE ANGEL
A fascinating tale, delivered with just enough suspense to make it engrossing without feeling over the top.
The Angel is a failed promise of a movie that could have been a good espionage thriller.
It’s intricately plotted, seriously acted (Yorkshireman Toby Kebbell is convincing as Marwan’s Israeli handler) and serves as a brief history lesson that’s stranger than fiction.
A good introduction to the thorny and complicated relationship between Egypt and Israel, told from the perspective of a real-life hero to both countries.