I swear, there must be 100 movies with titles similar to “Rogue Agent” (and I bet I’ve watched and/or reviewed half of them). But generic name aside, this new British drama/thriller very much has a feel all its own. It’s a slow-burning yet meticulously paced fact-based story that takes its time setting up its pieces. But once you get a sense for what’s happening, it’s hard not to be gripped by this appalling and kinda crazy true account.
“Rogue Agent” is co-directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn from a screenplay the duo co-wrote with Michael Bronner. It’s based on a magazine article Bronner wrote titled “Chasing Agent Freegard” which spotlighted Robert Hendy-Freegard. He was a con-man who masqueraded as an MI5 agent to lure in and manipulate numerous people, often separating them from their families and stripping them of their money. The true details are astonishing, and the film pulls pieces from several real accounts to craft a story that gives us a good grasp of Freegard and his shameless deceit.
The movie opens in 1993 where Robert (played by James Norton, with his natural good looks and deceptively tender smile) works as a bartender in a small college town. We’re told in voice-over about Robert’s cunning. About his keen ability to read people and persuade them. We watch him stealthily target three students and later convince them that he is an undercover agent with MI5. We see him dupe them into believing an Irish Republican Army cell was embedded at the university (during the volatile 1990s the IRA waged a bombing campaign in England. So his claims would get attention). And we watch as he recruits them to be freelance spies for MI5 who report only to him.
I know it sounds unbelievable – like an absurd movie storyline no one would ever buy into. In reality, this is exactly the kind of game Robert Freegard played, and the emotional, psychological, and financial damage left in his wake remains immeasurable. Patterson and Lawn do a good job emphasizing the harm done to Robert’s victims, many of them young women.
Nine years pass and we’re introduced to Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a litigation solicitor for a big law firm. While walking to work she meets Robert who now works as a luxury car salesman (fitting). Despite her cautious nature, Robert’s charm does its work and the two begin a romantic relationship. But when Alice begins to notice inconsistencies in his stories she must decide whether to go with her heart or trust her instincts.
Inevitably the true account removes some of the suspense, but I still won’t spoil where the story goes. While much of what we see is fictional, most of it is inspired directly from the real-life encounters victims had with Freegard. And that’s what makes “Rogue Agent” work. Nothing about the story feels false. It remains grounded and avoids all temptations to turn itself into a full-on genre film. It has its slow patches, but it never loses its authenticity and it never loses our interest.
The film is also helped by strong performances from Norton and Arterton. Norton brings some fascinating layers to Robert. Some of them help us understand why so many people could be seduced by his wiles. Others give us deeper looks at the depths of his duplicity. Meanwhile Arterton makes Alice a solid protagonist who’s always walking uphill in her male-dominated world. But she’s hardly a damsel in distress, and Arterton frequently shows us Alice’s strength and resilience in their many forms. There’s also a really good performance from Marisa Abela who plays Sophie Jones, one of Robert’s early victims who ends up having a big part to play in the story.
It’s truly hard to fathom Robert Freegard’s extraordinary guile but also his shocking callousness. “Rogue Agent” paints a vivid and fittingly diabolical portrait of the scam artist and all his deceptive layers. And by putting a heavy emphasis on Arterton’s character, we’re allowed to see things from the victim’s perspective. The deliberate pacing may push away some, but it’s key to presenting to us the overall picture of this unthinkable story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. “Rogue Agent” opens Friday in select theaters and streaming on AMC+.