It really doesn’t pay to invite comparisons with John Le Carré unless you’re really at the top of your game, which Yuval Adler certainly is not with this adaptation of Yiftach Reicher Atir’s novel. The plot essentially recycles that of “A Little Drummer Girl,” and Adler’s film is inferior to George Roy Hill’s 1984 feature based on it, which starred Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski, let alone the recent mini-series by Park Chan-wook with Florence Pugh and Michael Shannon.
The protagonist here is Rachel Currin (Diane Kruger), a rootless young woman with language skills who’s recruited by Thomas Hirsch (Martin Freeman), a British Jew based in Berlin and associated with the Mossad, to work for the Israeli intelligence agency in Tehran. She’s inserted there as an English teacher with instructions to gain access to an electronics firm associated with the Iranian intelligence service. The goal is to arrange for the company to acquire defective components for the country’s nuclear program that will also be fitted with tracking devices that can allow the Israelis to pinpoint the location of the Iranian project.
Rachel is understandably nervous about the assignment, but she’s accepted without demur by the company’s handsome wunderkind Farhad Razavi (Cas Anvar), and the two become romantically involved. That leads, of course, to divided loyalties as she is pressured by her superiors to lure Razavi to the west so that they can turn him. At the same time Thomas grows increasingly protective of Rachel and fears, when she distances herself from the mission, that the Mossad establishment will consider her expendable.
Adler constructs the narrative in a circular fashion, starting at a point when Rachel contacts Thomas after having disappeared for some time, before going back in time to recount her recruitment and then jumping back and forth chronologically before reaching the point at which she and Thomas are reunited and her fate is settled (or not, since the ending is ambiguous). The back-and-forth approach impedes the buildup of urgency, and despite a few exciting moments—most notably a sequence in which Rachel witnesses some sudden violence when she’s interrupted accessing the Iranian company’s computers, and another when she’s assigned a dangerous mission to transport explosives across the border with Turkey.
Such moments are few, however, and for the most part “The Operative” is a pretty pedestrian affair, lacking the visceral intensity this sort of spy story should convey. The fault lies primarily with Adler’s approach, which is surprisingly ponderous, but one can also point to the performances of Kruger and Freeman, which are adequate but hardly compelling. The supporting cast, including Anvar, is also rather pallid, as is the physical production, in which Kolja Brandt’s camerawork makes little of locales that should have a much more exotic air.
As far as modern espionage films go, “The Operative” simply doesn’t operate on the highest level: neither exceptional nor terrible, it falls in the mediocre middle.