“To fight fascism you have to be a communist.”
One of the most notorious espionage stories of the 20th century involves several members of Britain’s upper crust. While Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Donald MacLean attended Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1930s, they were recruited as spies by the Soviet government. All of the men subsequently gained prestigious jobs and successfully passed secrets to the Russians for several decades. The four-hour television mini-series, Cambridge Spies, concentrates on the characters of the spies, and how the society they were part of allowed them to flourish.
The film begins with Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s. Hitler’s power is on the rise, and fascism manages to impress a certain segment of the British upper classes. In response to the rise of fascism, many are attracted to communism. Blunt and Burgess are members of an elite club–the Apostles–and they are both committed communists when they meet and become involved with Donald MacLean and Kim Philby. The four men form a tight bond, which remains even after they leave university. Philby and Burgess both held high positions in MI6, and MacLean became a diplomat. Blunt–a distant relative to the royals–was knighted and became the Royal Curator of Art for the Queen.
Cambridge Spies succeeds in showing how these men were attracted to communism in the first place. They all came from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, and involvement with communism was a reaction against that, and also a reaction against fascism. The film shows the political and social atmosphere in which the Cambridge Spies made their commitment to communism. The film is also extremely successful in showing the ‘old boy network’ that existed, and which, in effect managed to protect the spies. They were simply beyond suspicion and beyond reproach.
Guy Burgess (Tom Hollander in an amazing performance) is a volatile extrovert with a penchant for self-destruction. Kim Philby (Toby Stephens) is much more controlled, and he seems the more rational of the bunch. MacLean (Rupert Penry-Jones) is another loose cannon, and Blunt (Samuel West) enjoys his connection with his royal relatives far more than he anticipated. While I deplored the misguided actions of the spies, it seems quite plausible that at least two of the four men (Blunt and Burgess) lived to really regret their youthful decision to convert to communism. But they found themselves stuck in a lifetime commitment before they realised the consequences. Blunt and Burgess seemed to truly love England, and their involvement with the Soviet government is sadly ironic.
Cambridge Spies is really is an incredible story. The plot sticks more or less to the truth–although some details are not quite accurate. The most glaring deviation concerns the defection of Guy Burgess. DVD extras include a documentary, and there’s also a ‘scrapbook’ with TV tidbits about each of the spies. Directed by Tim Fywell.