Spooks: the Greater Good “struggles to fill the big screen” – review

This first movie spin-off will please fans of the TV show but can't compete with Bourne or Bond, says Andrew Collins

★★

I am hardly alone in declaring myself a fan of BBC1’s British intelligence-services drama Spooks, which ended in 2011 after ten cracking series and 86 episodes. 

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Blessed with an average of around 6m viewers in the UK, it exported well around the world – if not quite so well in the United States where, renamed MI-5 to avoid the racist connotations of the “S-word”, it only ran to four series on BBC America and ended up on basic-cable channel Ebru TV (no, me neither).

Well written, thrillingly staged and always in step with post-9/11 world events, the secret to the show’s longevity was surely its knack of adapting to survive, with successive casts incrementally replaced as actors moved on: Matthew Macfadyen (2002-2004), David Oyelowo (2002-2004), Rupert Penry-Jones (2004-2008), Hermione Norris (2006-2009) and so on. With this in mind, it seemed perfectly plausible that Spooks might reactivate on the big screen with a new set of agents, as long as the producers retained the show’s only permanent fixture, Peter Firth’s section head Sir Harry Pearce. Thankfully, that’s what they’ve done.

So, the first big-screen spin-off, which revisits familiar Central London locations and similar dramatic territory, is essentially an extended bonus episode that will please fans but may leave cinemagoers spoilt by Bond and Bourne with the feeling that – despite the international nature of the ever-present terror threat – it’s all rather parochial.

Written and directed by experienced alumni of the series – Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (series 9 and 10 regulars) and Bharat Nalluri (who directed the first and last ever episodes) – it throws us straight into the action, with a charismatic terrorist (Elyes Gabel) escaping from MI5’s care in a nail-biting set piece that’s the equal of anything in the TV show. Firth’s dreadnought boss goes to ground, and retired agent Will Holloway (played by the hairy Kit Harington, hot from Game of Thrones) is tempted back into the fray, while the capital is threatened by an attack. Again. (This was always a Spooks stand-by.)

A few other familiar faces show up: Lara Pulver’s former section chief now off-grid, Tim McInnerny’s oleaginous civil servant forced to resign in 2006 but back in charge, and Hugh Simon’s diligent data analyst Malcolm. But the meat of the action rests with Harington, who never really shakes off his sulky, sullen persona when he’s not running and jumping, and lacks the charisma of a leading man. (Maybe they should have given him a haircut and a shave, but that would have interfered with Game of Thrones continuity – where, incidentally, he’s one of almost 20 principal cast members and thrives in medieval-fantasy costume in snowy climes, where his sulkiness seems more apt.)

There are other decent set pieces: one all over the South Bank; another within the Pinewood-built underground HQ that was never as impenetrable as it ought to have been. The extra 40 minutes in length that makes The Greater Good a film and not an episode, doesn’t seem to add any depth. Harry is left to moon over his dead colleague and once-future wife Ruth (Nicola Walker, only seen in a photograph), and fans may similarly lament the passing of a character that’s strong and backstoried enough to equal his presence. A new female agent, played by Tuppence Middleton, never quite comes alive, and Jennifer Ehle’s boss – the best thing in it – ought to have had more to do than stand behind a table in that conference room.

Had The Greater Good been on BBC1, perhaps over two nights, it would have felt like espionage Christmas had come early, but in the isolation of a single hit, it struggles to fill the screen. It gives me no pleasure to write this. But perhaps it should have stayed retired, for the greater good.

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Spooks: the Greater Good is released in cinemas Friday 8 May