I’m always going to prefer these kinds of small-bore spy stories to big explosion-filled exercises that you get with the “Bond” films or “The Gray Man,” coming on Netflix later this summer starring Ryan Gosling. It’s a choice between maximalism and minimalism and the latter always seems more interesting from a storytelling standpoint. And frankly, “The Ipcress File” (written by John Hodge of “Trainspotting” fame and directed by James Watkins) proves the stakes can feel high even when the testosterone is kept mostly in check (Harry really doesn’t like killing people) and everything isn’t going boom every other minute.
Where does “The Ipcress File” find its kicks? By looking at how people’s weaknesses can be exploited; that’s more of a spy’s job than anything. But also: It’s men driven by their own personal need for revenge. The class politics are overt and very English and very spiky. And frankly, the impending promise of a plutonium bomb going off — strictly in testing circumstances, of course, but still — is enough to put you on edge. The series looks expensive without being flashy or too visually ambitious. Set pieces are kept relatively small and simple, with a focus on the details and production design, and it works. The action is in the ideas and the ever-shifting dynamics.
Cole is a fascinating choice to carry the show. He has Michael Caine’s youthful air of insouciance, but with the way his features are arranged, he also has the appearance of a nobody. A guy who’s easy to overlook. That actually comes in handy when you’re a spy: Blend in and don’t draw attention to yourself. It’s an intricately plotted series that doesn’t glamorize spy work so much as make clear just how awful it can be. The betrayals will always get you in the end.
'THE IPCRESS FILE'
3.5 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: AMC+
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