'The Angel': Film Review

Fascinatingly stranger than fiction.

Ariel Vromen's thriller recounts the true-life story of Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became a spy for Israel's Mossad.

John Le Carré couldn't craft a more riveting spy thriller than the true-life tale of Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and confidant of his successor, Anwar Sadat, who became a spy for the Israeli Mossad. Or perhaps a double agent secretly working for the Egyptians. The controversy remains to this day, and the story has been compellingly dramatized in the film The Angel, directed by Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), premiering on Netflix.

Marwan Kenzari (The Promise, Ben-Hur) plays the central role of Ashraf, who, in the film's opening scene, is shown attempting to persuade his father-in-law to reach out for support from the U.S. rather than the Soviet Union, which he's convinced will collapse. The advice goes unheeded by Nasser (Waleed Zuaiter), who ridicules him in front of the other government officials present. Nasser also makes it clear to his daughter (Maisa Abd Elhadi) that he strongly disapproves of her choice of a husband.

To illustrate what might have sparked Ashraf's later actions, the pic includes a scene of him studying at university in London and listening to a lecture about Juan Pujol Garcia, known as "Garbo," a Spanish double agent who deceived the Nazis about the location of the D-Day invasion. When Nasser dies and is succeeded by Sadat (played by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai of The Band's Visit fame), Ashraf worms his way into Sadat's good graces by providing evidence of corruption among several top government officials and becomes a trusted adviser. Not long afterward, he cold-calls the Israeli government and offers his services. Although initially rebuffed, he is later contacted by Mossad and given the code name "The Angel."

"I like it!" exclaims Ashraf, who is also assigned a handler, Danny (Toby Kebbell). Ashraf begins providing information about Egyptian military activities even while entrusted by Sadat with such duties as going to Libya and meeting with Muammar Gaddafi about oil reserves. But when Ashraf's repeated warnings about imminent Egyptian invasions of Israel prove wrong, he is threatened by Mossad agents, who call him "the boy who cried wolf." The walls begin closing in on Marwan, and he becomes an object of suspicion in both the Israeli and the Egyptian government. But after providing accurate information about what would become the Yom Kippur War, he would be credited by Israel as one of its most valuable assets.

The complex story is riddled with unanswered questions, which The Angel doesn't satisfactorily explore. Sometimes the emphasis of the screenplay by David Arata feels off, such as the concentration on Ashraf's marital problems and the role of a sexy English photographer (Hannah Ware) who helps him in his exploits and repeatedly comes on to him, only to be rebuffed. It's as if the film is determined to make clear that its subject is the anti-James Bond. And the final explanation of why Ashraf did what he did isn't quite convincing; you can feel the pic straining to fill in the blanks.

But it's still a fascinating tale, delivered with just enough suspense to make it engrossing without feeling over the top. The director ratchets up the tension slowly but assuredly, making excellent use of the atmospheric locations, including London and Cairo, and assuredly evoking the early-1970s time frame.

Kenzari delivers an arresting leading turn, anchoring the complex proceedings by keeping us guessing about Ashraf's motivations but always effectively conveying the complex emotions attendant to his risky endeavors. Even when the film itself occasionally falters, Kenzari's performance remains consistently powerful.  

Production companies: Sumatra Films, TTV Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Marwan Kenzari, Toby Kebbell, Hannah Ware, Sasson Gabai, Waleed Zuaiter, Slimane Dazi, Maisa Abd Elhadi
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenwriter: David Arata
Producers: Simon Istolainen, Zafrir Kochanovsky, Antoine Stioui
Executive producers: Matthew O'Toole, Esther Hornstein

Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Alain Bainee

Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Danny Rafic
Composer: Pinar Toprak
Casting: Rutie Blum, Emma Gunnery, Deliana Gergana Quievy

113 minutes