SYNOPSIS: As his country prepares for war, top Egyptian official Ashraf Marwan makes contact with Israel and wades into a shadowy game of high-stakes espionage.
There may not be any name actors headlining the true-life thriller ‘The Angel’, but don’t let that keep you away from one of the best espionage movies we’ve seen in recent time.
Based on the New York Times bestselling novel ‘The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel’, the film recounts the fascinating events surrounding the top Egyptian official Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari), who was both presidential aide to then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (Sasson Gabai) and a Mossad spy at the height of the infamous Yom Kippur War.
It was Ashraf who warned the Israelis of Egypt’s imminent invasion through the Sinai, but who also advised President Sadat to delay his invasion twice, thus saving both sides from worse bloodshed when the latter side eventually joined hands with Syria from October 6th to 25th in the year 1973. But because his earlier warnings did not materialise, Ashraf was initially branded by some quarters of Israeli intelligence as ‘the boy who cried wolf’, and the fable itself is a recurring motif throughout the film.
As adapted by David Arata, we are introduced to Ashraf during Sadat’s predecessor President Nasser’s rule, where he was both junior aide in the Presidential Office and son-in-law to Nasser’s daughter. Yet his convictions that Egypt should ally itself with the United States than with Russia led him to be ostracised by Nasser, who not only ridiculed Ashraf in front of other government officials but also made clear his disapproval of Ashraf to his wife Mona (Maisa Abd Elhadi).
Following Nasser’s death, Ashraf warms himself to Sadat by providing evidence of corruption among several top government officials who used to be close to Nasser. But at the same time, Sadat’s insistence that he could not avoid going to war with Israel at some point in order to reclaim lost Arab territory deeply troubled Ashraf, who therefore decided to ‘cold call’ the Israeli government and offer his services. After a period of silence, Ashraf is contacted one evening at his home by the Mossad, setting the stage for a series of information exchanges centred on Egyptian military activities.
Naturally, Ashraf’s interactions with Israeli intelligence are the focus of the narrative, in particular with his handler Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell) and another more seasoned but more sceptical operative Judah Hornstein (Mickey Leon). Trust is the key dimension of their relationship here, not only as Ashraf finds himself tailed by Israeli agents who don’t seem convinced that he is genuine but also as his enemies whom he had put in prison begin to suspect that he might be working for the Israelis after all. That tension is well-sustained throughout the film by director Ariel Vromen, who keeps the focus trained largely on Ashraf as various parties tighten their noose around him.
By telling the story through Ashraf’s point of view, Vromen also highlights the cost of his clandestine activities on his marriage, particularly as he ‘disappears’ for official trips every now and then. It doesn’t help that one of the confidantes he turns to for assistance happens to be the attractive English actress Diana Davis (Hannah Ware), whom Mona suspects that Ashraf is having an affair with. If the emphasis on his crumbling marriage seems distracting at times, it is only towards the end that it becomes clear the intention is in fact to juxtapose the depth of his convictions to the inadvertent consequences of these choices, underscoring how fervently he must have believed his country was on the wrong side of history with the Soviets.
The movie very much rests on Kenzari’s shoulders, but his magnetic performance carries the film through and through. Kenzari sets Ashraf up as an enigmatic figure at the start, whose loyalties are murky at best, but over the course of the next two hours, slowly peels away the layers to reveal him as a patriot who had Egypt’s best long-term interests at heart. It is a somewhat controversial argument, given doubts to this day of who he was really working for, but we say the film is better off taking a position for the matter than leaving it open-ended.
So like we said, there may not be any big-name stars headlining ‘The Angel’, but this is easily one of the best original Netflix movies we’ve seen. Especially when many such stories tend to emulate the Bourne trilogy, it is admirable that there is a strong commitment to realism in the storytelling here, while keeping the proceedings tense and suspenseful. Those into period films will also surely appreciate the attention to detail on the 1970s locations including in London and Cairo, which add to the air of authenticity that makes the film even more impressive..
Review by Gabriel Chong