"The Angel" Reviewed: Missed opportunity in overly sentimental spy-thriller

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Much controversy surrounded the release of “The Angel” on Netflix back in September. Safe to say that most, if not all, the controversy came from within Egypt.

The film itself is based on, or inspired by, or is an interpretation of, depending on who you ask, the real-life figure of Ashraf Marwan, a high-ranking figure of the Egyptian government and son-in-law to Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

On the Egyptian side, Marwan was a member of Nasser’s presidential staff from 1968 up until his death in 1970. He subsequently continued to be a close aide to President Sadat, being heavily involved in war preparations for taking back the Sinai which was lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. His role didn’t extend beyond that.

In 2002, Israeli historian Ahron Bregman claimed he was still all that but a Mossad agent on the side too, codenamed “The Angel”, a strong explanation for the title of this film. As their most valuable asset, Marwan tipped off the Israelis on the impending Egyptian attack to take place on the 6th of October 1973, which happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Egypt’s military strategy was to catch Israeli forces off guard when their entire military was going to be demobilised. Marwan also allegedly kept feeding Israeli intelligence throughout the war information on Egypt’s military plans and manoeuvres.

In response to these claims, Egyptians said that Marwan was a double agent for Egypt, fooling Israel into thinking that he was spying on Egypt, providing them with inaccurate information while feeding back to Egypt intelligence on Israel’s military assets. Some on the Israeli side have also said this.

It’s a never-ending seesaw of who did that and who did this. “The Angel” takes a very diplomatic third route of showing Ashraf Marwan as a man of conscience. His decision to snitch on Egypt to the Israelis moralistically motivated so as to reduce the potentially catastrophic number of casualties of all-out war breaking out. However, he isn’t presented as a total turncoat. Instead, the writers decided the film should show him as playing up both sides so that a peaceful solution can be reached as soon as possible. Smart that, isn’t it?

This review will spare no pointless time in questioning or confirming the authenticity of the events that take place in “The Angel”. It is, after all, just a film. A piece of drama. A piece of fiction. An imagined creation ultimately designed to entertain. It’s not a history book and should by no means ever be regarded as such.

“The Angel” marketed itself as a spy thriller, however, it doesn’t quite tick all the genre’s boxes. What it comes across as instead is more melodrama, less espionage, and one that just happens to take place in the high palaces of Middle East politics, and the inconspicuous bars and alleyways of London.

Ashraf Marwan is played by Tunisian-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari, who previously starred in the “Ben-Hur” (2016) and “The Mummy” (2017) remakes, and “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017). He’s also set to appear in 2019 as Jafar in the Walt Disney live-action adaptation of "Aladdin" (1992).

The writers decided to deploy Marwan (the character, not the actor) as a conflicted man. Conflicted between loyalty to his country, his wife, his father-in-law, and his own moral concerns over the number of lives that could be lost in a very possible military confrontation between Egypt and Israel. Mixed in with his dilemma is his desperate need for money to continue his studies in London after Nasser decides to cut him off financially thanks to his debaucherous behaviour in the English capital’s nightlife being caught on camera. The fact he was caught partying and gambling with English actress Diana Ellis (there’s no record of her on the internet by the way) seemed to compound the issue further.

It’s this trilateral axis of inner conflicts which drives Marwan into the arms of the Mossad, providing them with valuable intelligence which helps him secure the money he needs for himself and his family, and satisfies his humanitarian desires to protect Egyptian and Israeli lives.

This may have been a smart move, as opposed to depicting Marwan as one of two other unsavoury options: 1) either a traitor completely motivated by greed and personal financial gain; or 2) a high-ranking government official in an extremely sensitive portfolio who completely betrays Egypt and crosses over to the Zionist movement. However, the decision to go with portraying Marwan as a trickster who pulls the legs of both sides of the Middle East conflict for himself and the greater good wasn’t well executed by director Ariel Vromen and Kenzari, whose performance was inconsistent and difficult to figure out.

At times, Marwan is a whiney, nervous pushover to a degree that eventually becomes irritating to watch. At other times, Marwan suddenly comes across as a sly, dark, cool, and confident power broker and negotiator. This side most prominently turns up when President Sadat sends him to Libya to negotiate with Gaddafi in scenes so orientalist, they surely caused Edward Said to feel just a little triggered in his grave. Although, knowing how eccentric the late Libyan dictator was, as in having a personal-all female-bodyguard-who-are-all-virgins level of eccentric, those exotic palace scenes may have very well happened in reality during his tenure.

The rest of the film slogs along at an inconsistent pace with a chain of unrelated events that are difficult to follow. The only fully developed character is Ashraf Marwan. Everyone else is just peripheral and an accessory to his struggles, successes, and failures. And ultimately, he still ends up being difficult to care about. In one highly sentimental scene, he sobs over the few important things in his life that he’s lost, yet even during that moment, you find yourself struggling to feel any sympathy. His oddly patriotic and humanistic motives to spy for Israel feel quite off and far-fetched. You’ll be expending a lot of mental energy to try not feeling indifferent.

Other points about “The Angel” will forever bring anguish to Egyptian viewers no matter what the true story is. The accents are off. Way off. They range from sounding like broken Egyptian Arabic, like the variety spoken by Egyptian expats born and raised in the West, or in gated communities in the Gulf, when they return to the motherland and rediscover their once lost identities. When it’s not broken, it sounds like all sorts of accents from the region covering the Levant and Persian Gulf. Sasson Gabai, the Israeli actor of Iraqi-Jewish origin who plays President Sadat, somehow wasn’t instructed or given any direction, or even took any time upon himself to practice the Egyptian dialect. Since he emigrated to Israel during his childhood, he stuck to a phonetically awkward accent which sounded like a non-Arab speaker trying to sound like an Iraqi who was trying to sound like an Egyptian. That may have very well been the case.

Overall, “The Angel” was a missed opportunity for a genuinely thrilling and intriguing spy drama. The genre is already saturated with Anglo-centric blockbuster franchises such as the Mission: Impossible and James Bond series. It could have done with a unique addition set in a region where all the power dynamics and rules of espionage are incredibly different. To our collective disappointment, all we’re left with is a production which feels more like a long episode of an average yet virtually unwatched Netflix series.

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