The Operative is a bland and convoluted affair that struggles to keep the audience engaged and leaves minimal impact during its runtime.
Premiering at this year's Berlin Film Festival, The Operative is now available in select theaters and on-demand. Written and directed by Yuval Adler, the film is based on the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir. Atir was an intelligence officer, suggesting that perhaps The Operative could be a realistic, authentic examination of modern-day espionage and spy work packaged in a compelling thriller. Unfortunately, the end result falls short of those aspirations. The Operative is a bland and convoluted affair that struggles to keep the audience engaged and leaves minimal impact during its runtime.
The Operative picks up as handler Thomas (Martin Freeman) receives a mysterious phone call from one of his best agents, Rachel (Diane Kruger). Thomas is then called in as he and his superiors attempt to figure out the reasoning for Rachel's actions, with Thomas recalling Rachel's undercover mission in Tehran. While there, Rachel posed as an English teacher and became heavily involved with her primary target, Farhad (Cas Anvar), which caused complications as the assignment progressed. Now that Rachel's re-emerged in the present day, Thomas and the others quickly plot to find a way to deal with the situation.
The film's biggest problem is that despite being billed as a thriller, it isn't exactly, well, thrilling. It has difficulty grabbing hold of the viewer's attention early on, due to a non-linear structure that makes things a tad confusing and the lack of a real fascinating hook. Nothing in the story set-up is particularly interesting, giving viewers little reason to invest in the plot during the first act. Though The Operative is a fairly standard two hours, it can really drag along at times since there isn't much to get attached to. Both the main narrative itself and the characters that populate it are fairly generic and don't have much overall to them, which hurts the film in the long run.
In regards to the performances, everyone in the cast gives a sound performance, but nobody truly stands out. That's likely more a byproduct of the material than the actors involved, since the likes of Kruger and Freeman have demonstrated their range and talent in several of their previous projects. The main issue is because of the script, the main players in the ensemble don't have a lot to work with and feel like they're going through the motions. The Operative tries to set up a friendship between Thomas and Rachel, but that dynamic never truly shines onscreen. The same can be said for the romance that blossoms between Rachel and Farhad, which unfortunately serves as a key piece of the movie's emotional core. This plot point ultimately feels rushed in order to mix things up, and there's no real sense of a connection or chemistry between the two characters.
The Operative marks Adler's second full-length feature (following 2013's Bethlehem), and he demonstrates solid talent behind the camera. While he isn't always successful at drawing the emotion out of the story, there are individual sequences that work quite well in a vacuum. A couple of instances do a good job of ramping up the tension, though these moments are far too fleeting to salvage the entire film. In terms of the technical filmmaking, Adler's approach bears resemblance to similar, more mainstream titles of years past, which complements the story by giving The Operative a grounded look and tone. Again, if the script was stronger, The Operative might have been very effective.
All in all, straight to VOD is probably the best fate for The Operative, as it's more likely to find an audience in living rooms rather than going up the big releases at the end of the summer. And while the film's release pattern makes its shortcomings a little more bearable, that still doesn't give it a full pass. Fans of the original book and this genre might be intrigued to give The Operative a try one day when they're in, but there isn't much here to recommend to a larger audience. Ultimately, Adler the writer let down Adler the director (and the cast), since the film is let down by an underwhelming screenplay that doesn't find the right way to nail its story. Most people might be better served crossing something off of their Netflix queue rather than paying to give this one a rent.
The Operative is now playing in select theaters and VOD. It runs 116 minutes and is not rated, though the film does include violence, language, and sexual content.
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