“Tell me your deepest, darkest secret,” Olivia Thirlby’s photojournalist casually says to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ undercover Mossad spy — complete with uncomfortable grimace — during an impromptu dinner date. It’s not so much a meet-cute as just one of the clichéd moments in this disappointing political thriller.
The pair first stumble across one another in Jerusalem, where Ari (Meyers) is being assessed after he derailed his last mission by killing someone he wasn’t supposed to. Their relationship intensifies when they see each other again in Syria, where Ari must exfiltrate a scientist and his family. But before long, he discovers why he’s really there, and navigating a new romance is the least of his problems.
The cast is ultimately let down by wooden dialogue and predictable twists.
Based on 1977 novel The Damascus Cover, author Howard Kaplan’s familiarity with the settings — having previously lived in the Middle East — is felt deeply, even in the screen adaptation. It’s intriguing to see this area of the world’s espionage explored given the nations’ conflict, and it helps to add some semblance of depth and grit.
While Damascus Cover paints the locations effectively, it doesn’t allow for such richness when it comes to its characters. We learn Ari is recently divorced, resents moving to Germany when he was a small boy, flinches at the mention of children following the death of his son and would become his alter-ego Hans Hoffman if he could. By the end of the film, you’ll wonder why they told you, because none of it seems to actually matter.
That being said, Ben-Sion is no James Bond. He sometimes slips up and it’s a welcome change within the genre. There’s no denying that Rhys Meyers — whose accent is faultless — makes for a cracking secret agent either, his intense face perfect for portraying a man with inner demons who’s in over his head. Thirlby exudes warmth against his cold, suited-and-booted operative, while Navid Negahban also turns in a strong performance as a corrupt Syrian general, his bloody, immoral ways of obtaining information hidden by his powerful position and charming smile.
The trio is ultimately let down by wooden dialogue and predictable twists. It’s a wonder why they made this story so narrowly focused when its real lure lies in the much grander tension between Syria and Israel. (There’s even a laughable reveal in the film’s final act that undermines what little focus it had on that subject.) The film holds some poignancy; perhaps merely for the fact that it features the great John Hurt’s final performance. But it’ll struggle to hold your attention.