After playing the head of M.I.6 in the James Bond movies, the actor does his part to illuminate a British spy’s role in installing the Shah of Iran.
By Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker: Even before being cast as Gareth Mallory, otherwise known as M, the head of M.I.6, in the James Bond franchise, Ralph Fiennes, the English actor, was intrigued by the motivations of spies. “Agents have to create intimacies, relationships, trusts with other people—that they then have to go and exploit,” Fiennes said the other day, talking in the garden of a restaurant near his home in Shoreditch, London. How does a spy justify, or even tolerate, such a betrayal, Fiennes wondered—ideology? Sociopathy? “As an actor, you ask, ‘What is going on inside?’ ”
The occasion for Fiennes’s reflections on spycraft was the release of “Coup 53,” a documentary directed by the Iranian-born filmmaker Taghi Amirani. The film concerns the little-known role played by the British secret service in orchestrating the overthrow, in 1953, of Iran’s left-wing Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. In particular, it reveals the critical part played by a British agent, Norman Darbyshire, who was in charge of handing out the money that precipitated the violent ouster of the country’s democratically elected leader in favor of the more tractable Shah. “Coup 53” pieces together this murky episode from multiple sources, including footage long buried in the archives of the British Film Institute: a series of interviews with former spies, conducted thirty-five years ago for a TV documentary. Mysteriously, an incendiary interview with Darbyshire, in which he acknowledges Britain’s role in the coup, didn’t appear in the final cut of the program, nor was it to be found in the bowels of the B.F.I.
Left with only a transcript of the interview, Amirani pulled off a bit of a coup of his own: landing Fiennes to read Darbyshire’s recollections aloud. This was achieved thanks to the intercession of the film’s editor, Walter Murch, who was the sound designer on “Apocalypse Now,” among other storied movies. “I knew Walter from ‘The English Patient,’ ” Fiennes said. “They sent me the transcripts and showed me what they were doing, and I was hooked.” At the time of filming, Fiennes was playing the lead in “Antony and Cleopatra” at the National Theatre. “I said, ‘I can’t change my beard,’ but they didn’t want that,” he explained.
Fiennes didn’t have time to learn lines, but that wasn’t called for, either. Instead, he showed up for a few hours of filming in the Savoy Hotel, where he sat in an armchair to which a piece of chintz had been stapled, to replicate the one used by the original crew for its interviews, which were conducted in the same location. Fiennes, who, in the film, wears jeans and an ancient-Roman beard, did not pretend to be Darbyshire. He simply read from the transcript, which the film crew had placed out of frame. The result is an energizing conceit: Darbyshire, who acknowledges responsibility for running the coup—and who calmly admits to having had Mossadegh’s chief of police killed—is animated by Fiennes’s flinty glamour and peerless dramatic chops. “I was not trying to be him,” Fiennes said. “I read the lines, but I try to give them some kind of life. It’s a weird sketch-in of an idea of who someone might be. It’s a surmise.”
Typically, Fiennes delves deep into research for a character—he’s been bicycling around Suffolk and chatting with villagers in pubs, preparing to play Basil Brown, the archeologist who, in 1939, excavated the site of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo. But, in the case of “Coup 53,” no such preparation was possible. “We don’t know who Norman Darbyshire was,” Fiennes said. Fiennes draws upon type, delivering Darbyshire’s revelations with the arrogance and patrician manner of the mid-century British establishment: “Timing is always of the essence, and secrecy.” A pause, the slightest of shrugs. “Persians aren’t very good at either.”
Why the recording of Darbyshire’s interview went missing, and where it now is, are questions Amirani was unable to resolve. The mystery also remains as to why Darbyshire chose to speak so freely to a TV crew after a lifetime of silence. In the film, Lord David Owen, who was the British Foreign Secretary in the late nineteen-seventies, during the period of the Iranian Revolution, speculates that Darbyshire didn’t like the fact that the U.S. had acknowledged its own involvement in the coup. “We all like recognition for what we’ve done,” Owen said. “He was fed up with being told that this was the Americans. He wanted a good old British view—he wanted them to get some credit for it.” Fiennes speculated that it may have been the actor in Darbyshire who sought out the limelight. “If I play Antony, I am creating that mask for those three hours. But, if you are a spy, you are creating a whole persona that you have to be, for days on end,” he said. “It is like the supreme acting challenge. And you get no curtain call.” He went on, “Norman Darbyshire wanted a curtain call.”
First published in The New Yorker. Illustration by João Fazenda.
Rebecca Mead joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1997. She is the author of, most recently, “My Life in Middlemarch.”