You’d think that over 30 years after its end, the Cold War would have lost its ability to inspire spy stories. You would be wrong. While spy stories were already around when the Cold War began, it’s an undeniable fact that that tumultuous period is when the genre really came into its own. And now, you can return to that infamous era again with the exciting AMC/ITV show The Ipcress File. But first, a little background.

Throughout the 60s, there were rumors of secret CIA experiments involving mind control (rumors that we now know were at least partly true). Len Deighton‘s novel and its subsequent film adaptation starring Michael Caine capitalized on these fears to tell an iconic story of brainwashing and espionage. The 1965 movie’s brainwashing scene eventually became so influential that you can see its touch in a wide range of films from The Manchurian Candidate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and even 2002’s Scooby-Doo). While the mind control element is what 1965’s The Ipcress File is best known for, the film was also important because it provided a gritty, realistic alternative to the flashy upbeat spy fiction seen most memorably in the James Bond movies.

So considering how prominent its source material is, the new miniseries adaptation of The Ipcress File already has some big shoes to fill. That’s exactly why it’s a good thing that writer John Hodge (Trainspotting) and director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) have chosen to make this show a story that’s best appreciated when considered on its own. While there are references and homages to the 1965 movie, the series does not attempt to be a recreation of the film and that’s the main reason why it’s so enjoyable.

Related:’The Ipcress File’ Cast and Character Guide: Who’s Playing Who in the British Spy Drama SeriesSome things do remain the same between the two, most importantly the character of Harry Palmer. Introduced as a British soldier in divided Berlin who engages in some casual black marketeering on the side, Harry is the one who serves as the audience’s eyes and ears in this shadowy world. At first glance, Peaky Blinder star Joe Cole does not seem like a good fit for the role, especially if you’re comparing him to Caine. But that is exactly what makes Cole’s casting a great choice. You look at this version of Harry Palmer and there is no way in a million years that you’d expect him to be a spy, which is exactly what Harry Palmer should be like. Pure visual elements aside, Cole also puts on some great performances in the series, especially towards the end when he discovers firsthand what Ipcress really is. Spoilers: yes, it is a brainwashing technique, and Harry is subjected to it, leading to some surreal and mind-bending scenes.


Jean Courtney, a colleague of Harry’s played by Sue Lloyd in the original film, is also included in the show but here she’s given a much bigger role. Lucy Boynton is brilliant as Jean, playing the character with a strength and calm that her male compatriots can only aspire to. She’s the one who does most of the actual spying and if there is a complaint to be made about the show’s depiction of Jean, it’s that there ought to have been even more of her. There’s something of a romance subplot between Jean and Harry, which honestly feels a little unnecessary, but the character shines best when she’s lying and manipulating her way through the shady world of espionage. The main subject of Jean’s manipulations is Paul Maddox (Ashley Thomas), a CIA agent whom she first meets while trying to arrange an operation in Berlin. A new character created for the show, Maddox is a very complex person and Ashley Thomas’ performance constantly keeps the audience guessing as to where Maddox’s loyalties truly lie.


All that being said, the absolute scene-stealer in this series is, without a doubt, Tom Hollander as Major Dalby, Jean and Harry’s boss who is a veteran of the spy game. Dalby is smooth, smart, and everything you want a great spymaster to be, and Hollander delivers an excellent performance in the role that is every bit as good as you might expect from the award-winning actor. Originally an antagonist in the novel and the 1965 film, the show’s take on Dalby is by far the most interesting, and I, for one, would love to see a spinoff show that’s completely dedicated to Dalby’s adventures. As the head of the unfortunately named War Office Operational Communications (Provisional) – WOOC (P) for short — Dalby is comparable to M from the Bond films, but Hollander’s performance puts him more in the league of Gary Oldman‘s Smiley from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It’s not that the show doesn’t have its issues. While the story is well-crafted, there are times towards the middle when the plot feels like it’s starting to spin out of control a bit. If you’re not paying the most careful attention, it’s easy to get lost and be left wondering where all of this is going. Also, if you’re as voracious a consumer of spy fiction as I am, it’s pretty easy to anticipate most of the major twists. The payoff is still worthwhile, with a newly-introduced assassination plotline that wasn’t in the movie or the book adding some meat to the show’s latter half.

When watching the show, it’s important to remember that the original movie was set in its own present-day while the series is a period piece. That works to the show’s advantage, allowing it to incorporate actual historical events and foreshadow certain others, especially one fateful day in Dallas, Texas that would shock the world. Throw in some great art direction and artful camera angles, and you have a series that’s as much a tribute to 60s spy fiction as it is a reimagining of the same.


The miniseries is best enjoyed when you watch it as a standalone story without reference to the 1965 movie. That said, it does manage to maintain the realism and grit that made the film so highly acclaimed. There are no good guys or bad guys in this series, no supermen in tailored suits pulling off impossible stunts. Death, even the death of a relatively unimportant henchman, is treated with the utmost respect and attention. The person who provides the most significant bits of actual spy work is a barely-seen analyst called Carswell (Irfan Shamji) and even the most dastardly enemy spies are given some moments of true humanity. The Ipcress File isn’t your garden variety spy story, nor is it a gloom-and-doom picture of horrible people doing horrible things. It’s in the balance between those two extremes that The Ipcress File manages to fit itself — and while it’s far from perfect, this is definitely a show that’ll have you waiting with bated breath every week for the next thrilling episode.

Rating: A

The first episode of The Ipcress File premieres on Thursday, May 19, with the remaining episodes airing weekly every Thursday, exclusively on AMC+.

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