J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Close to the Enemy: A Grand Hotel for Espionage

For many of Britain’s Greatest Generation, it was hard to believe how quickly things changed after the war, like the towering Winston Churchill getting turned out of office. That was obviously a mistake they rectified in 1951. For partially PSTD-rattled Victor Ferguson, making nice with “useful” National Socialist scientists is also a mistake. His older brother, Capt. Callum Ferguson might just agree with him, but his latest and most likely last assignment involves winning over a reluctant German aeronautical engineer. At least he will have agreeable digs for the gig. Ferguson and his charge will be “safely” ensconced within London’s only functioning luxury hotel in Close to the Enemy (trailer here), a seven-part British limited series, which releases today on DVD, from Acorn Media.

Victor Ferguson survived Monte Cassino, but he has been acting erratically and anti-socially ever since his discharge. Capt. Ferguson landed at Normandy. Outwardly, he is cool and confident, but we are given reason to believe his psyche is deeply troubled. Babysitting Dieter Koehler was not his idea, but if he can convince the German to help his new British patrons break the Sound Barrier first, he will be in a highly advantageous position to restart his engineering career. There are also fringe benefits to being stationed in the Connington Hotel. The food is decent and the aspiring actress-working girl staying in the next-door room is certainly friendly. Plus, an expat American jazz diva leads a legit swing band in the basement club, which is of particular interest to a frustrated composer like Ferguson.

Ferguson will steadily gain Koehler’s trust, initially through pleasing his little girl Lotte. Unfortunately, he is frequently called away to tend to brother Victor’s dramas. For reasons we never really understand, Ferguson also commences an affair with his best friend’s rich American fiancée, Rachel Lombard. More interestingly, the Captain develops a highly complicated working relationship with Kathy Griffiths, an investigator in the British war crimes office. Of course, she is trying to prosecute exactly the sort of people who have been stashed away at the Connington. Yes, much to Ferguson’s own surprise, it turns out there is another old National Socialist a rival agency is keeping on ice in the hotel.

Enemy is stuffed with characters and subplots, which espionage genre fans generally appreciate. In this case, it means the lists of what works and what flops are both long and detailed. The basics are pretty strong, starting with the Connington setting. Generally speaking, it is good fun to watch Ferguson skulking around mothballed building. It is sort of like Grand Hotel or Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, but with guns and war criminals. To give credit where it is due, Jim Sturgess, who can be pretty hit-or-miss is really terrific as Capt. Ferguson, nicely handling both his flip façade and slow-burning angst. However, his relationship with Charlotte Riley’s Lombard is never the slightest bit believable, especially when Charity Wakefield seems like so much more fun, as the slightly scandalous Julia.

Regardless, Capt. Ferguson is all business with Griffiths, but their scenes crackle with energy, thanks to the first-rate platonic love-hate chemistry Sturgess and Phoebe Fox share together. Speaking of fun, Angela Bassett is clearly having a blast playing the Billie Holiday-Josephine Baker composite. Then there’s Freddie Highmore as Victor Ferguson—and there’s just so blasted much of him. His petulantly boyish screen presence is so annoying, Martin Scorsese will probably make him the lead of his next six films if DiCaprio suddenly goes through puberty. Whenever Victor lurches onto the scene, everything comes to a screeching halt, even when the crafty old vet Alfred Molina tries to cover for him as Harold Lindsay-Jones, a retired Foreign Office official, who takes an interest in the Brothers Ferguson.

So, both columns of Enemy’s ledger are pretty full. Yet, thanks to Sturgess and the nearly bullet-proof hotel-for-spies premise, it keeps viewers sufficiently intrigued and invested to sit through Victor’s interminable acting up, so they can get back to the good stuff. Recommended for fans of British period spy dramas (despite Victor “Fingernails-on-the-Blackboard” Ferguson), Close to the Enemy is now available on DVD and BluRay, from Acorn Media.

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