'A Spy Among Friends' Seeks to Understand Kim Philby's Defection to the Soviet Union
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A Spy Among Friends tells the tale the friendship between British spies Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott. Philby, notoriously, was a double agent for the Soviet Union, and defected to Moscow in 1963 after he was revealed to be a spy for the Soviets. He spent his final years in Moscow, until he died in 1988.
"The story is the aftermath of all the stuff that he'd done," actor Guy Pearce, who plays Philby, tells Town & Country. "We get see all the things that he's done, but we see the aftermath of it, which is quite fascinating."
Based on Ben Macintyre's book of the same name, A Spy Among Friends seeks to understand why Philby fled to the Soviet Union, and how he got away with being a double agent for so long. Not much is known about what happened to Philby after he left the UK, which makes his story ripe for dramatization. The decision to focus on Philby's defection, rather than his choice to spy for the Soviets, was a straightforward one for the show's creator and writer Alexander Carey. "We know nothing about it so I can make anything I want up," he jokes to Town & Country. "But that said, it's based in truth and conversations with [author] Ben [Macintyre] and my own research as well. What I was trying to imagine was really a state of mind that was beginning to change—and Philby's grip on his superpower beginning to slip away, and be replaced by indifference."
Viewers remain curious about Philby, Carey believes, because of his status as a traitor. "Once you get past all the establishment points of view, or the traditional reactions to a traitor, people want to know more," he says. "People want to understand what kind of psychological position are you in to do that? And why would you do that? And who else are you?
"I think that that's endlessly fascinating about people who do spectacular things in the world, about whom you want to know more—the traitor is an extreme, an extreme path to go down," he adds.
As an actor portraying a historical figure, Pearce remained surprised by the real Philby's actions throughout production on the show. "I found myself every few weeks going, 'Wow. I can't believe this actually happened. He actually did this,'" Pearce tells T&C. "It was a fascinating, fascinating journey."
Kim Philby: The Spy I Loved, a memoir written by Eleanor Brewer, Philby's American wife, was key for Pearce in understanding his role. Eleanor, Pearce says, "was with in Beirut when [Philby] when he left, and brought her over to Moscow with him—and then that relationship fell apart. She wrote a book which covers that period and also looks at some of the letters back and forth between the two of them. That was a way in for me—there was something mundane and ordinary about the way they communicated with each other that felt a bit more human than some of the bigger ideological stuff that was part of the story."
Whether or not Kim Philby truly wanted to defect is lost to history. A Spy Among Friends doesn't offer a definitive answer, but the show is framed by conversations Philby has with his friend and fellow British spy, Nicholas Elliot (played by Damian Lewis), in Beirut, where Elliot offers Philby amnesty in the UK if he confesses.
For Pearce, he played Philby as a man who didn't want to leave the UK for Soviet Russia. "I don't think he wanted to," Pearce says. "The questions that I was asking myself about Philby at the time, I suppose, were the offer that Nicholas makes to him—which is confess and come live your days out in a lovely country home and you'll be well looked after. Whether or not his ego could accept that, whether he would feel like he would then be eaten alive from the inside if he went and lived that life. But also the question of whether or he felt safe if he went and lived that life, would the CIA knock him off if he went and did that? They were questions that I was asking at the time."
"I don't think Philby wanted to defect," he continues. "I'm sure he just wanted to keep on doing what he was doing probably forever. Then obviously, once the walls closed in, he had to do something. It was either to go back to the UK and, and live a comfortable life or jump on a ship to Russia. I don't think for a moment, once he got to Russia and once he realized that he wasn't welcomed the way that he thought he might be, that he really wanted to stay."
Philby died in May 1988 in Moscow at the age of 76. If he could ask him one question, Carey says, it would be "how disillusioned he was when he saw Soviet communism in the flesh." and if he regretted fleeing to Moscow. Though, Pearce chimes in, "There was a lot of drinking through his whole life, but there was a lot of drinking to his final days. So that might tell you something."
A Spy Among Friends premieres tonight on MGM+. Sign up for MGM+
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