Damascus Cover

 

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A film said to be in memory of John Hurt, but it’s not the one to remember him by.

   

Damascus Cover

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Olivia Thirlby

   

By chance August 2018 sees the release of two films that are directly comparable. Only a week after the arrival of Damascus Cover, The Negotiator will reach our screens. The latter takes place in the 1980s in Beirut for which Tangier stood in, while the Damascus of Daniel Zelik Berk’s film set a decade later is represented by footage shot in Morocco. What really unites them, however, is the fact that in each case a tragic, factual situation has become the backcloth for a by now rather too familiar tale of agents and their missions in which plot twists abound based on the notion that nobody can readily be trusted and nothing is as it seems.

 

Both Damascus Cover and The Negotiator operate under the shadow cast by the mastery of the novelist John le Carré. If The Negotiator is worthwhile without being even close to the top rank, Damascus Cover is one step down from that - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say two steps down. It is a film that quickly reveals clichéd writing that often feels banal. A better screenplay might have enabled us to feel more involved when Israeli intelligence headed by Miki (John Hurt) sends an agent to Syria. He is a German using the name of Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who pretends to be a potential buyer interested in Persian carpets. In reality his task is to get close to an ex-Nazi living there (Jürgen Prochnow) and through that connection to take steps to prevent the head of Syrian Intelligence (Navid Negahban) from uncovering the identity of a secret supporter of Israel known only as The Angel.

 

As an action piece, Damascus Cover lacks any subtlety and, before long, it is adding scenes in a tone utterly unsuited to this setting. Olivia Thirlby plays a girl who on encountering Hans introduces herself as Kim, explains that she is an American journalist and proceeds to flirt with him as though this were a comedy. Their banter leads to love and to contrived sentimental scenes about Kim having lost access to her child and Hans being haunted by the accidental death of his 8-year-old son. Despite Thirlby’s valiant efforts these scenes do not work, but worse is to come when the twists and turns of the plot - always an essential part of this kind of movie - prove to be singularly unconvincing. The obvious music score is just what you would expect in such circumstances.

 

The late John Hurt made no less than three films in his last year and this film is dedicated to him. It is hardly a matter of regret that his role in it is so brief since Damascus Cover is the kind of fodder that hardly deserves a cinema release. The real way to say farewell to John Hurt is to seek out instead the imperfect yet thoroughly worthwhile work in which he had his last starring role, the other 2017 piece released earlier this year and entitled That Good Night.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, Navid Negahban, Jürgen Prochnow, Wolf Kahler, Igal Noor, John Hurt, Shani Aviv, Tsahi Halevi, Neta Riskin, Selva Rasalingam, Ben Affan.

 

Dir Daniel Zelik Berk, Pro Huw Penallt Jones, Hannah Leader, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Joe Thomas, Screenplay Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton, from the novel by Howard Kaplan, Ph Chloë Thomson, Pro Des Matthew Button, Ed Martin Brinkler, Music Harry Escott, Costumes Eleanor Baker and Kenza Chaab.

  
Vertical Entertainment/Zeitgeist Entertainment Group/Marcys Holdings/BBM-Munro Film Services.
93 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 3 August 2018. Cert. 15.