Based on the shocking true story of Robert Freegard’s insidious crime spree in the 1990s and early 2000s, Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn’s stylish thriller Rogue Agent turns James Norton into Gemma Arterton’s duplicitous and dangerous lover and takes audiences on a twisted, yet surprisingly straightforward journey. Opening in 1993, the film’s prologue of sorts sets the stage for Freegard’s greatest con, as Arterton’s Alice Archer tells the audience about the trick he used to gain someone’s trust: Look them in the eye long enough to learn their eye color.
Nine years before Freegard met Alice, he was capitalizing on the final years of The Troubles, masquerading as an MI-5 agent on assignment to recruit spies to uncover members of the Irish Republican Army. He’s smart and calculated when it comes to reeling in his targets. He takes a job at a small pub, turns on the charm, and draws in a young, foolish university student looking to make a difference in the world. With one student ensnared in his game, he manages to lure in two more and concoct a ploy to convince them that they’re on the cusp of greatness. But he isn’t an undercover spy. He’s a con man looking to use the students’ convictions to foot the bill for his next con. Rogue Agent shows its hand early when it comes to Freegard’s intentions, but it’s not to its detriment. With a story inspired by well-known real-life events, Patterson and Lawn allow the audience to be privy to the twist, while the characters remain in the dark.
Robert Freegard, going by Robert Hansen at the time, orchestrates a chance encounter with Alice Archer after he spots the beautiful lawyer walking past the shop window of the car dealership he works at. She’s unimpressed with him initially, especially after he stands her up on their first date, but his charm eventually breaks through her reservations. Of course, there are red flags, but his bravado, white lies, and good looks manage to keep Alice from seeing them. At least, right up until the moment that she gets a private investigator to look into Robert Hansen. A man who doesn’t even exist. But Robert is a pro at playing the long-con and Alice’s concerns are smoothed over with the revelation that he’s actually an undercover MI-5 agent. He even manages to twist the narrative, convincing her that anything unusual about him that she might be met with is just the British security intelligence testing to see if she’s up for the task of dating a spy long-term.
Despite Freegard’s valiant attempts to gaslight, gatekeep, and girl boss his schemes, he starts to smell the blood in the water of his relationship with Alice, and he bounces—along with £120,000 that he stole with the help of his other lovestruck victim, Sophie (Marisa Abela), who thinks she’s deep undercover and close to being recruited. After that line is crossed, Alice sets out to uncover the full breadth of Freegard’s deceit, and with the help of the copper Sonny Chandra (Shazad Latif), they uncover years of dangerous manipulation that has left numerous women hurt by him. But the question is, will they be able to stop him before it’s too late for the latest women he’s caught in his web of lies?
As someone who first discovered Norton when he was playing the mild-mannered vicar Sidney Chambers in the historical mystery series Grantchester, it was quite amusing to see him put his boy-next-door charms to use for far more devious purposes. It certainly gives him a prime opportunity to prove that he’s entirely capable of playing against type. Especially when Rogue Agent could easily fall into the other oddly specific 2022 niche of “be careful who you date because that pretty face can easily turn psycho.” Yes, we are looking at you, Sebastian Stan, and Josh Ruben. It’s ironic that all three of these films have their deadly and charming antagonists dancing to catchy tracks.
Norton’s disarming charm is the perfect antithesis to Arterton’s very straight-laced portrayal of Alice. She’s an uptight lawyer who has a long list of reservations about giving into the slightly off-putting car salesman who has an answer and explanation for every question and situation that arises. It’s the very prim and proper persona that she often plays, whether she’s falling in love in Vita & Virginia or fighting for The King’s Man. Arterton and Norton have a natural chemistry that makes it easy to believe that he might be drawn to her, and she might be drawn into his schemes.
2022 has brought with it the lion’s share of sexy thrillers—Deep Water and All the Old Knives—which missed the mark on both sexy and thrilling. Rogue Agent, on the other hand, manages to carefully thread the needle of Norton’s sex appeal, with the fact that his malice as Freegard is as sharp as the needle’s tip. While Rogue Agent may not be as thrilling or as fast-paced as the glossier fare of The Tinder Swindler, The Dropout, or Inventing Anna are, it does bring a distinctly British approach to con-artistry.
While Patterson and Lawn could have been drawn into making this a more salacious and charged tale of spies and lies, they neatly avoid the tabloid fodder and pay a modicum of respect to Freegard’s victims that are still alive and well and healing from the pain he put them through. With neat, concise storytelling, and a skilled cast, Rogue Agent is a compelling film that will appeal to thriller and true crime lovers alike.