Straight to VOD used to be an obvious indication that a film project had missed the mark, that its quality didn’t warrant a theatrical release. In today’s complex streaming era, with dozens of services vying for attention and audiences still reluctant to return to theaters, many an excellent film finds its way to streaming without hitting theaters. Diary of a Spy, the latest from indie writer-director Adam Christian Clark (Caroline and Jackie, Newly Single), is one of those films whose straight-to-VOD release might just indicate a reasonably-warranted lack of confidence in the project’s appeal.
Diary of a Spy is billed as a “uniquely intimate and gripping romantic spy thriller inspired by true—but confidential—events.” I’ll grant that it is a spy film and that the events inspiring it may be based in fact. Tamara Taylor (Bones) plays Anna, at the apparent end of her career as an intelligence officer working for a mysterious, unnamed government entity. Her last ended in abject failure, leaving seven colleagues dead. Self-medicating with booze, nearly broke, and about to lose her housing and pension, she is presented by her mysterious superior known only as “S” (played by a game Susan Sullivan restricted to a Zoom connection) with a last chance for absolution.
That last chance comes in the form of an unlikely mission: Anna is instructed to seduce and then recruit a young tutor, Camden (Reece Noi from Game of Thrones), whose connection to the Saudi Royal family makes him a potentially valuable asset. Clark’s script may be based on a “confidential” true story, but it feels like a mission in absurdity. Taylor plays Anna as so, so pitiable: always fatigued, often drunk, prone to mumbling, dithering about, unsure of herself, that it’s hard to imagine her as an intelligence officer or as a woman who can entice a much younger man. Thirty-four-year-old Noi (17 years Taylor’s junior) plays an even-younger Camden, a misfit who is socially stunted and romantically inexperienced. Perhaps neither can imagine themself with anyone else: it’s difficult to understand what either sees in the other that complicates Anna’s mission when the two unsurprisingly develop an affection for each other that is, frankly hard to see.
But nearly everything about Diary of a Spy, a film borrows much from film noir, is hard to see. You will not encounter a darker film—more so in the literal lack of light than in its tone. Nearly every scene is set in shadow, the characters barely lit with the most partial of illumination. Like many films noir, voice-over narration provides exposition: Anna narrates a significant chunk of the first half of the film in a world-weary monotone that at times borders on the inaudible. Shadowy characters with their backs to the camera mumble to each other. Even outdoor scenes are drenched in dismal dark greys. Characters meet over meals in dark bars and restaurants with no patrons and no employees. There’s nothing more I’d like to see than a contemporary neo-noir take on a non-white protagonist’s undercover gig or investigation, but no one will ever mention Diary of a Spy alongside Devil with a Blue Dress or Deep Cover.
If the relationship between agent Anna and tutor Camden never registers as romantic, neither does the film itself as a thriller. There is one single chase scene, though it amounts to nothing, and there is some discussion of an assassination plot you might well wish took its course, given how annoying the intended target character is portrayed. Scenes play out in interminably long takes with few edits, and even simple narrative transitions, like segueing from one scene to the next, sometimes requiring that we watch Anna leave one scene, walk on the pavement, enter a vehicle, ride in that vehicle, exit the vehicle when it reaches its destination, and then finally enter the new set where a new conversation will begin. (Director-writer Clark is credited as editor, too.) Nearly every minute of the film is plagued with Slow Dakota’s often-unnecessary ambient score, which tries too hard too often to generate tension or emotion when the visuals and narrative can’t.
The supporting cast fares a little better than the leads with Fred Melamed (A Serious Man), Madeline Zima (Californication, Twin Peaks), Susan Sullivan (Dharma & Greg, Castle), and Jon Lindstrom (True Detective, General Hospital) all delivering serviceable performances. However, each of their characters exists primarily to serve as talk-to’s for the the leads. Their work is largely limited to giving Anna or Camden instructions or hearing their reports; none makes much of an impression. One who does is Paulina Leija, making her feature film debut as Fahda, though her character is so intolerable I found myself optimistically anticipating Anna’s assigned assassination attempt.
Diary of a Spy may indeed be based on a true story. I’d be interested to read it, though as far as I an tell, it’s not a story that’s been committed to any reportage or memoir. If indeed a down-on-her-luck intelligence agent was in actuality assigned to infiltrate the Saudi royal family by seducing a young tutor with his own agenda and assassinating a princess, and if she and her mark indeed found romance despite their assignments, one can easily imagine a compelling narrative. It might be a little sexy, it might be a little scary, it might even be a bit of a romantic thriller. It needn’t be, like Diary of a Spy, a dark, shadowy, uninteresting, thrill-less, pointless exercise riddled by poor editing, incessant music, and unconvincing lead performances.
Diary of a Spy is set to release on VOD services July 14.