Writer: Huw Lemmy
Directors: Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmy
There were the ‘right kind of chaps’, the Cambridge spies, model members of the Establishment who over decades rose to illustrious positions in the British government and Secret Services while all the time working for the NKVD. Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmy’s fascinating new film Ungentle available to view at Clapham’s Studio Voltaire, gives poetic voice to one of their stories, a double agent and traitor reflecting on the nature of deceit, devotion to socialism and the price of love in the 1930s and 40s, in which the directors place his words over contemporary footage of the country he betrayed.
A young man starts to feel contempt for his class and the country he was born into, so when a romantic encounter with a fellow ‘Apostle’ at the University Cambridge takes him to The Red House, the man is welcomed into a network of Russian spies. Inveigling their way into high office and spilling its secrets, forced to hide in daylight and at night, the man cannot forget his first love.
Lemmy’s script is beautiful, a soulful and sometimes quite touching exploration of a man breaking the law in every part of his life. The parallels that Ungentle draws between spying and concealed homosexuality are sensitively managed, indicated in Lemmy’s text with the same locations and means of encounter – taps on the shoulder, London parks and shadowy doorways – where all kinds of betrayals take place.
But this is no sentimental story and while the audience feels for Lemmy’s subject who speaks directly to them in the first person, there is no apology, sorrow or regret for his actions, just the quiet sadness and pragmatic acceptance of a life half lived, but one the narrator never wishes to exchange. The unnamed speaker is never seen, and, although his proximity to the Cambridge Five is clear, this is less about the mechanics or even the idealism of spying and more about the context, the nature of the life he inhabited and what it cost him.
Using 16mm film, Igwe and Lemmy create the feeling of archival footage to accompany their piece and only slowly does the viewer recognise the contemporary. Filmed in St James’s Park – a place close to both MI5, MI6 and government departments, and a known cruising ground after dark – as well as the Hampshire stately home of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and, in a charming nod to John le Carré, at Cambridge Circus, Ungentle’s visual choices reference the heart of the secret world and the continuing effect of those betrayals 60-70 years on.
But it also underscores the very things that the narrator betrayed, his mellifluous tone playing over shots of English countryside, of rose gardens and plants swaying in the wind, the physical beauty of nature that the Cambridge set sold-out. Igwe and Lemmy also suggest the betrayals cut through the Establishment with its symbols of Britain – Parliament and Buckingham Palace – as well as the very people of the nation going about their business on a London street, unaware of the secret lives and treacheries done to them and around them.
Ben Whishaw is an ideal narrator, he reads Lemmy words with a gentleness, almost a melancholy that is as matter of fact about the easy duplicities and the disgust with Britain that caused them, as it is pained at the long unrequited love for the man who uses and discards him. Duplicity and disloyalty take many forms in Whishaw’s reading, the personal and the public intertwined in a superbly paced reading.
Running at the little over 30-minutes, Ungentle is a version of the Cambridge spy story that paints a broader picture not only of the era in which these men operated but uses the visual style of the film to explore all the secrets men had to keep.
Ungentle screens at Studio Voltaire from 16 September 2022 – 8 January 2023.