Film reviews

Manchester Film Festival: Damascus Cover

The most mainstream film of the MANIFF2018 and winner of the festival’s Best English Language Film award, Damascus Cover is Daniel Berk’s (Love is a Gun) adaptation of Howard Kaplan’s 1977 spy novel of the same name, and a return to form for Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors), but most importantly, the last film of the late John Hurt (Alien).

Updated to 1989, Damascus Cover presents the story of troubled and frustrated Israeli spy, Ari Ben-Sion (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who is given the new assignment of smuggling a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria, whilst under the guise of “Hans Hoffmann” – a German and buyer of luxurious carpets. Ari’s assignment, however, goes astray when American photojournalist, Kim (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby), is attacked for taking pictures, which leads him to resolve the issue and subsequently develop an unwanted connection. Soon after, Kim talks to Ari – in the guise of “Hans Hoffmann” – about children (and later reveals that she has one), which causes an immediate discomfort and distress to Ari, as he lost his son years prior. Now, the audience is presented with a spy who is tortured both physically and mentally, tortured both in and out of work, thus adding more depth and interest in the Ari character. Kim, however, is more than just a love interest or add-on to Ari’s character, and as Damascus Cover progresses, Kim’s presence is more important than anticipated by Ari and audiences alike.

In rescuing the scientist’s family, Ari must infiltrate – under the “Hans Hoffmann” guise – the household of former Nazi, Franz Ludin (The English Patient’s Jürgen Prochnow), where the daughter of the scientist is a housemaid. Whilst selling his false character to Franz, Sarraj (24’s Navid Negahban) – the main villain of Damascus Cover and High Police Committee figure – arrives unexpectedly and uninvited to check on Damascus’ visitor, “Hans Hoffmann”. After Sarraj has left, Franz’s other dinner guests begin to question “Hans Hoffmann”, as they know that Sarraj purposely visited to check on their carpet-buying dinner guest. Then Franz begins to have doubts over “Hans Hoffmann” when the faux German is caught masking his real intentions (the rescue assignment) by trying to have his way with the housemaid of whom he must save.

With rising suspicions made by Ari and both his allies and antagonists, paralleled with increasing action, intensity and even mystery, Damascus Cover transcends into a legitimate contemporary spy film. Though some subsequent story events are predictable and/or conventional, there is a looming unpredictability of Damascus Cover that maintains audience interest.

Predicting Jonathan Rhys Meyers to win MANIFF2018’s Best Actor award was as easy as predicting rain in Manchester. Rhys Meyers was a true pleasure to watch and believable as both the Israeli spy and the German carpet-buyer of whom he is pretending to be. The more fascinating of Rhys Meyers’ acting comes in the form of his voice change and his general way of speaking during his transitions between spy and carpet-buyer. There was, however, one notable disappointment: during the pre-premiere’s “Filmmaker’s Studio” featuring cast and crew, Damascus Cover’s fight coordinator over-sold Rhys Meyers’ training and realistic display of action, instead of the supposed Hollywood style – annoyingly, the fight sequences are fast cut and the official Israeli fighting style is not presented in a way to be admired, thus this feels like a wasted opportunity to showcase a highly-skilled fighting style.

John Hurt – minimised to a low supporting role – is a typical example of “quality over quantity” in Damascus Cover. As the Mossad hierarchy to Ari, Hurt’s Miki is somewhat of a mysterious presentation on screen. Not mysterious in the form of appearing in the shadows wearing a trench coat, but mysterious in that the audience is restrained in knowing the full intentions of Miki and the overall assignment that umbrella’s Ari’s individual assignment in Damascus, Syria. If Ari doesn’t fully trust Ari, why should the audience?

Olivia Thirlby’s Kim has all the elements of a Bond Girl, though she is much more than that – she is better than the Bond Girl. Aiding Ari aside, Kim not only has a growing presence as mentioned, but she has a legitimate back-story and purpose in Damascus Cover. Like the mystery factor of Hurt’s Miki, when it gradually becomes obvious that she has overstayed her welcome as a photojournalist for a story in Damascus, the audience generally thinks: Kim is clearly more than a love interest to Ari, so why is she still there? She’s done her job already? Furthermore, there is a clear chemistry between Thirlby and Rhys Meyers, of which is a pleasure to see on screen because it adds a depth of believability and entertainment in general.

As a production overall, Damascus Cover is quite remarkable in the sense that the recruiting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers was rather last minute, but looks throughout that he has been involved in the production since day one. Within the “Filmmaker’s Studio” consisting of cast and crew prior to the premiere, there was an obvious warmth between the practitioners and performers alongside the connotation of them being genuinely proud of their Damascus Cover.  

Opening and closing with explosive scenarios, Damascus Cover delivers what audiences want and expect from a spy film in the action-thriller hybrid genre. The spy film has been a mainstream success with Western audiences since the official debut of Bond in 1962, and Damascus Cover shares notable Bond conventions: undercover spy; fine suits; attractive woman assisting the hero (Bond Girl); sports cars; exotic locations; and a fighting skill-set. Luckily, Damascus Cover refuses to be glued to its parallels with Bond in that there are no ridiculous story occurrences, out-of-place gadgets (ala Timothy Dalton Bond films) or an undefeatable/untouchable display of the hero against protagonists. On the latter point, there is an afternoon occurrence where Ari is being followed and ends up corned in attack by multiple men – Ari defends himself, but is ultimately beaten and left unconscious to wake up roughed-up in the evening. Despite being skilled, Ari can’t overcome unrealistic odds like Bond.

It is unlikely that Damascus Cover is your next favourite spy film, nor will it be remembered as a great. Damascus Cover, however, is a fresh and fun contemporary independent that, despite being set in the late 80s, does not revert to the cheap option of having the plot presenting the Americans against the Russians…for the millionth time in cinema.

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