Editor Chloe Woods reviews David Leitch’s highly-anticipated Cold War thriller.
A few weeks ago, the BBC announced Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor, and discussion turned naturally to the casting of another British cultural icon who has worn many faces: James Bond. Charlize Theron, the star of spy thriller Atomic Blonde, is one of the names on everybody’s lips in discussion of a potentially gender-swapped Bond. This is foolishness, not because Theron would make anything less than an excellent Bond, but because she’d be wasted in the sleek, sanitised confines of Bond’s more-money-than-sense adventures.1 Atomic Blonde has a heft and a glamour all its own, and it would be a far better use of everyone’s time to focus on that film for its own sake than treat it as an audition tape for another franchise.
Focus is key. Atomic Blonde throws audiences in at the deep end of Cold War espionage, spinning a network of alliances and counter-alliances its characters are deeply familiar with but we will only begin to unravel towards the end of the film. To confuse matters further, it takes a non-linear approach to time, framing the main sequence of events within the post-mission debrief of Lorraine Broughton (Theron) by her MI6 and CIA handlers. The film doesn’t take some of the liberties it might with this setup – while Lorraine may not be totally honest in her report, the camera is always honest with the audience; but honesty too can be used to deceive, and I doubt many viewers will see the film’s ultimate revelations coming far in advance. (Or possibly I haven’t watched enough spy films to be good at second-guessing them. Who knows?)
So here we are: Berlin, 1989, in the days immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall. James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) is murdered by a KGB agent for a list of spies’ names multiple people are eager to get their hands on. Lorraine is sent in to retrieve the list alongside David Percival (James McAvoy), a British agent who has effectively gone feral in the smuggler’s paradise, punk underground of East Berlin. Both have secrets of their own, and neither trusts the other, even as they work together to get both the physical list and the man whose head holds its contents back across the wall before the situation implodes. In the process Lorraine meets and forms a connection with the young agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), drinks more vodka than the human body should be capable of processing, takes multiple ice baths (some more voluntary than others), destroys several cars, shows off a series of outfits to remind us ‘80s fashion wasn’t all dire, and engages in one of the most brutal and drawn-out action sequences I’ve seen in a long while.2
So here we are: Berlin, 1989, in the days immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though it’s true of London too, everything is in black and white and the grey between, except when it matters. The world of spies is short on colour, truthful about the cost its residents must pay to survive there as about nothing else (Percival, who no longer cares about distinguishing truth from lies; Delphine, who sought adventure; Lorraine, guilty, detached, composed, undefeated but curiously broken, red welts of bruises hidden under a pure white coat; do you think this film says nothing?) and perhaps in the end the escapism of its fine bars and fast cars belongs more to the characters than the audience. The fight scenes, when they show up – and there are plenty, mostly small-scale but memorable – are effective and well-choreographed, without the frenetic modern determination to change shots every two seconds. Set to the music of flesh slamming on flesh, they trap the audience claustrophobically inside racing vehicles, or in unending sequences rendered bitterly amusing by the sheer persistence of the combatants.
So here we are: Berlin, 1989, in the days immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The soundtrack is quintessentially ‘80s, synth-pop and Bowie, drawing audiences right into the time period. Bond is Bond in a tux in any decade but Lorraine Broughton belongs here: in loose off-the-shoulder T-shirts, thumping nightclubs, crowds of protest marchers armed with placards, at the centre of global events set to be broadcast openly across the planet but where she and her ilk will be nowhere to be seen, because honesty too can be used to deceive. She has – nearly – the required comfort moving in the grey spaces between morality and loyalty, between trust and betrayal, at the tail end of a false war fought with little dignity on anybody’s part, in a place and time lived more at the edges than most, in a city divided between two halves hard to distinguish. In many ways it’s reminiscent of the Wild West; that’s innate to the period, both frontier spaces on the verge of being tamed, but the parallels feel deliberate at times.
Am I the only one who finds it funny to think of the very end of the Cold War as the setting for a period piece? When does the recent past become history? When the people who lived through it young are old enough to tell its stories, I suppose: there’s been a resurgence of the 1980s in popular culture recently, as those who experienced the decade in their formative years become executive producers and bigshot directors. Of course any period piece belongs in two times: the time it’s set and the time it’s made. Sometimes the latter is more honest – forest, trees, the perspective of hindsight – and in interesting ways: no major action film of the ‘80s or ‘90s would have made its lead bisexual and her main emotional bond part of a relationship (explicitly containing sex – I mean, really explicitly – and in fairness, there may be merited accusations of the male gaze there) with another woman, while remarking on neither character’s sexuality in the slightest. (Let’s hope that will soon become as unremarkable as women in films with professional careers or black men in charge of major international organisations.)3
And Theron absolutely sells it. She sells everything. She’s the haunted, hollow-eyed, too-long-in-the-job expert spy trying to complete a risky mission under particularly turbulent circumstances; at the same time, she’s the survivor, recounting the same events, in a bare room to portly men who hope they’re still pulling her strings. Toby Jones’s Agent Gray makes an excellent foil to Lorraine in the debriefing scenes – a little too ingenuous, a little too straightforward, not to be playing the game – just as Percival does in Berlin: careless, heedless, seeking a last refuge in laughter and barbarity while Lorraine takes her ice baths, and plans for the future. Do you think this film says nothing? It’s dangerous to tell the truth.
And so. If you found Inception too confusing or you don’t like blood, Atomic Blonde might not be for you. Otherwise, if you like action films or spy movies in any capacity, I suggest checking it out. It’s great fun, in a chillingly heartless kind of way; or it’s chilling, in an oddly fun and broken beat, in the spiralling and dying world of Cold War Berlin, 1989.
Atomic Blonde is out now in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer below:
1I admit, I’m thinking in particular of Spectre here, which out of all the Craig films was by far the most underwhelming and, if anything, memorable for its sheer forgettableness. I remember little of what happened in it – only that the plot felt like an excuse to move from set-piece to set-piece; that’s not actually a selling point in an action film, even if many people, some of them studio executives, make the mistake of thinking so.
2Admittedly, I’ve never watched John Wick, another series they’re comparing Atomic Blonde to. It seems there’s a fashion for gender-bending names to describe Atomic Blonde: Jane Wick; James Blonde. Idiots. A spy thriller starring a woman is no more a rip-off of established genre conventions and tropes than every other film in existence; and badass women, contrary to popular belief, were not invented in 1977, 2003, or 2017.
3Look, I managed to pull the feminist rant out of the main body of the text this time! But, come on, Charlize Theron as the bisexual star of an action spy thriller? I can’t not address that. OK. It feels necessary to consider the question of representation; of the accusation women in action films are often subjected to in feminist discourse, of “behaving like men” – in this case, particularly, in relationships. There’s an old unaddressed question in feminism of how far the drive for equality means eliminating differences either in behaviour or expectation between genders, and a separate but related question of the way “male” roles are often pedestaled (and “female” roles dismissed as inferior4) though those “male” qualities may be questionable at best. In other words, women must aspire to be allowed to act like men, but men often act badly, and women must not act badly… It’s complicated. But if freedom and equality mean the freedom to act as we choose without being judged according to our gender, sometimes that will mean women who are violent, or crude, or cold, and the equality isn’t in what they do but what they can. Sometimes it will mean women who engage in the same callous objectification as men have long been guilty of, towards men, towards other women, and in the real world that is not acceptable but in fiction sometimes it is acceptable to show a thing without hand-holding your audience through the difference between depiction and endorsement and, as a final point, that is not what happens in the film. I felt it necessary to address, since people have been claiming it does, but the actual relationship between Lorraine and Delphine is – worth not spoiling at this point. Let’s just say, while she falls into a fairly common archetype for a love interest, she’s a long way from a Bond Girl.
4This year’s releases include Gifted – about an uncle raising his niece by himself – which strikes me as an opposite and equal thing. As far as we only see films like Atomic Blonde and never films like Gifted, as far as women can only take on roles traditionally viewed as “men’s” to earn respect and men do not take on “women’s”, it’s a problem. (And films like Gifted are still rare, films like Atomic Blonde growing more common, slowly: so it is a problem.) But the problem lies in the pattern, not the individual – problems usually lie in patterns.