Title: Hidden Agenda
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Jim Allen
Music: Steward Copeland
Cinematography: Clive Tickner
Ken Loach’s controversial Cannes entry in 1990, which won him the Jury Prize, HIDDEN AGENDA is a faction political thriller sets in a powder keg Belfast during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
An American civil rights lawyer Paul Sullivan (Dourif) is crassly murdered along with a Provisional IRA sympathizer by British security force en route to a covert meeting with his secret source, a mysterious Captain Harris (Roëves). Paul’s aggrieved girlfriend and colleague, Ingrid Jessner (McDormand), remains in Belfast to seek out the truth, and soon is assisted by the righteous police detective Peter Kerrigan (Cox), designated by the Great Britain to lead the investigation.
Congruent with Loach’s rigid, anti-sensational stock-in-trade, HIDDEN AGENDA is, paraphrasing its closing quote from James Miller, a former MI5 agent, “like the layers of an onion, the more you peel them away, the more you feel like crying”, a somber police procedural strenuously resorting in verbal sparring to piece together the jigsaw of a conspiracy theory which implicates some insidious maneuvers from UK’s Conservative party with regard to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, then poignantly shades into a hammer blow to those who uphold an idealist view on political subterfuges. At least for once, it is not the usual suspects of IRA who are in the receiving end of the diatribe, but the whole rotten democratic polity of the Great Britain, iniquity operated by the powers that be and they are not ashamed, because they cannot be touched. In Loach’s all-fired persistence, the reveal (not so shocking to those who are world-weary or cynical), resounds with a cauldron of self-defeat, angst, exasperation and disillusionment.
As a pacy thriller, Loach circumspectly orchestrates a fringe approach to downplay all the suspense usually default in the genre (no bombastic car-chasing, fistfight or firefight). The truth-seeking process is intriguingly hard-hitting and hardly impeded by any red herrings or devious plotting (a secret tape is the McGuffin), the resistance is brazenly from the bureaucratic backscratching among top brass by way of face-to-face hectoring (a bumptious Jim Norton is a standout among the squadron of supporting players as the head of the constabulary Mr. Brodie) and Brian Cox is redoubtable as a stout rock refusing to budge from mounting pressure, which makes his powerlessness and concession all the more telling in the coda. Yet, in a pivotal scene with Harris, one can manifestly sense his contempt for the latter, whom he summarily deems as a traitor seeking refuge from IRA, no one can conduct disinterestedly where hardened bias and congenital patriotism can penetrate through one’s head as easy as falling off a log.
Kerrigan’s astute ambiguity is refracted by Frances McDormand’s impassioned performance as Ingrid, who is at once ingenuous and intrepid, and doesn’t succumb the disheartening reality check solely because she is an outsider, she has nothing else to lose in the purgatory besides her own life, but the film comes to a halt when Kerrigan retreats back from his mission, Loach doesn’t want a feel-good deus ex-machina to sabotage his scrutinizing endeavor (otherwise, in a lesser hand, it would be very possible to deploy a secret-recording from Kerrigan of his confab with two high-rank accomplices to turn the table in the eleventh hour), because he doesn’t need his films to please everyone, HIDDEN AGENDA is a provocation, but an intelligent one, Mr. Loach masterfully forces us to face a most inconvenient truth with his highly matter-of-fact modality, and its repercussions are here to stay.
referential points: Ken Loach’s KES (1969, 8.3/10), THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006, 7.2/10).