Liaison: a compelling high-grade espionage thriller

Playing like an Olivier Assayas entertainment packaged within a Michael Bay one, this glossy bit of Anglo-French hokum is a perfect vehicle for the talents of Eva Green.

24 February 2023

By Guy Lodge

Vincent Cassel and Eva Green as Gabriel Delage and Alison Rowdy in Liaison (2023)
Sight and Sound

“Her coolness is just on the surface,” says someone of Alison Rowdy, a glamorously brisk, intimidating Westminster political aide who’s both the protagonist and the central, onyx-dark enigma of Apple TV+’s six-part thriller series Liaison. Not everyone is so convinced: “Just promise me there’s an actual person there,” comes the reply. As is often the case in French writer Virginie Brac’s tangle of fiddly cross-Channel political intrigue, terrorism and steamy personal melodrama, there is and there isn’t: Alison’s blood runs hotter than anyone around her might guess, but she’s neither precisely who she claims to be, nor who she has convinced herself she is.

Casting is the first clue in Liaison’s enjoyable chain of mysteries: If you were looking for an actor to play a home secretary’s assistant who’s both squeaky-clean and above board in every way, Eva Green would be low on the list. As it is, we need only take in her searching grey-eyed gaze, or the firm, determined set of her knife-straight mouth, to gather that Alison has more on her mind than secretarial duties.

The series’ credibility hinges on other characters not clocking her foxiness before we do: that her otherwise unsparing boss Richard (a formidably gruff Peter Mullan) and her high-flying solicitor boyfriend Albert (Daniel Francis) buy what she’s selling is a necessary contrivance that enables Green’s buttoned-up but sly, incrementally suggestive performance to become the most interesting, equivocal aspect of this otherwise conventional bit of high-grade hokum. Cast any number of good British actors in her place – Keeley Hawes, say, or Claire Foy – and it wouldn’t lift off: Green convinces as an expert operative with the best interests of global cybersecurity at heart, but who could also plausibly murder someone in their sleep.

The one person who might know something of her secret is Gabriel Delage (Vincent Cassel), a roving French intelligence agent prone to taking jobs regardless of his stated “moral prejudice”, and whose fraught personal history with Alison is the blank that Liaison spends the bulk of its six hours filling. Years after they ceased contact, they find themselves chasing the same quarry: Samir Hamza (Aziz Dyab), a Syrian hacker seeking political asylum in France, who may be the man behind a series of increasingly severe cyber attacks in the UK, targeting the country’s electricity grid and transport networks.

Liaison hooks viewers by showing the most drastic of these early on: large-scale action set-pieces, like a nighttime flooding of Thames Barrier or a grisly head-on train collision outside King’s Cross, flaunt a considerable budget and ample CGI work to muscular effect. If the very existence of this Anglo-French production – with a French creator and co-leads, but the setting, visual language and vernacular of primetime British telly – seems a rejoinder to the isolationist thinking of the Brexit era, Brac makes sure to stress the point repeatedly in her writing too, as Alison’s employers, spooked by this unidentified threat to national security, scramble to rejoin the EU’s cybersecurity agency.

“Didn’t they sign a new agreement?” asks one French minister. “That’s what I thought, but it’s complicated with them,” shrugs a colleague. Back home, Alison and Richard do battle with the unnamed Prime Minister’s Brexiteer flunkies, who vocally identify Europe as the enemy. “I’m not going to watch them sell this country’s security off to a bunch of corporate mercenaries,” growls Richard. Britain is both victim and villain in Liaison; France, shown to have all manner of back-biting, double-crossing splinter groups in its government, hardly comes off any more heroic.

Diplomatically neutralising this political face-off is the varnished Hollywood touch of director Stephen Hopkins, once an accomplished craftsman of glossy, hi-octane studio junk food (Judgment Night, 1993; Blown Away, 1994), who has lately turned toward slick genre TV. His businesslike, action-forward direction – all fast cuts, ostentatious drone shots and a classic orange-and-teal palette – keeps things moving, even if his soundtrack choices (including one solemn needle-drop of Massive Attack’s done-to-death ‘Teardrop’) can too vividly recall his 90s heyday.

Hopkins’s sensibility makes for an odd mix with the sinuous, evasive, sometimes flagrantly horny performances of Green and Cassel, who sometimes seem to be playing out an Olivier Assayas entertainment in the midst of a Michael Bay one. But in a series that hinges on mixed messages and hidden agendas, that clash feels almost appropriate.

Liaison debuts today on Apple TV+; new episodes will air every Friday until 31 March.

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