An Officer and a Spy

An Officer and a Spy


As controversial as ever, Roman Polanski reminds us of his chops in a gripping, brainy historical thriller with the tang of the personal about it.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus Affair – think Watergate to the power of Profumo – plunged France into chaos.

Whatever your views on Polanski, and to say he’s controversial doesn’t even cover it, as a filmmaker he remains an absolute master of his craft. An Officer and a Spy is an immaculate piece of period storytelling. It’s going too far to say that it looks like an Auguste Renoir painting and plays like a Jean Renoir movie – but not by much.

Each frame is filled with painterly detail, each performance is distinctive. A revitalised Jean Dujardin hogs the limelight as a military investigator, Georges Picquart, forced to choose between his ambition and his humanity, while Louis Garrel (Redoubtable) is impactful in snatches of screentime as the initially cocksure Dreyfus who’s broken by the French army for the crime of being the wrong race.

There’s a plethora of engaging supporting turns, too, not least from Mathieu Amalric as a handwriting expert who speaks in the racist tropes of a Twitter troll. Polanski has always been a fine director of actors and he keeps his French cast marching to the film’s steady but unhurried beat.

The tone is weighty but peppered with nicely judged comic moments, most coming from Amalric.

Based on a book by Robert Harris (who also wrote another Polanski thriller, The Ghost) and co-written by the author himself, An Officer and a Spy restructures the novel into cleverly delineated episodes that span the five years after Dreyfus’s charges in 1894.

Its stately opening shot captures his forlorn march across the cobbles of Paris’s École Militaire to face trumped-up charges of selling military secrets to the Germans. He’s innocent, as he proclaims to the watching crowds, but it barely matters.

You could look at this movie as Polanski referencing his own exile, but we hope not.

Roman Polanski

Feb 27

By Phil De Semlyen | 26 Feb 2020


An Officer and a Spy
DirectorRoman Polanski
CastingJean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Emmanuelle Seigner