Rogue Agent Is Far More than Simple Cloak-and-Dagger Fare

Photo: Courtesy IFC Films

With a title like Rogue Agent—as simple and evocative as can be—the new docudrama from directors Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn performs a sleight-of-hand trick worthy of the con-man character it presents. A film titled Rogue Agent sounds like it would present a conventional espionage thriller full of double-crosses, fake identities, and suspenseful chases. But Rogue Agent is far, far more than mere cloak-and-dagger fare; it’s a rousing tale based on a true story of one woman’s dedicated mission to seek justice when she is gaslit and embezzled by a charming con man. And its narrative never loses sight of the criminal’s victims.

Rogue Agent begins in 1993, where in Shropshire a charming barkeep named Robert Freegard (James Norton) befriends a group of local college students. He tells them he is an undercover MI5 agent who needs their help to expose the IRA. They agree to do so, until Freegard tells them they’ve all been compromised and must go into hiding. Where they go, or what becomes of them, is left untold, for the time being.

James Norton as Robert, tending bar in Rogue Agent.
James Norton as Robert in Rogue Agent. Photo: Courtesy IFC Films.

The narrative cuts to 2002, as Freegard meets and woos Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), an upscale lawyer working a London office. The film for a time feels almost like a wobbly, slightly off-key rom-com: he tries a line from the luxury car showroom where he works, she shoots him down, the next day she apologizes, they agree to a date, he bails, then he apologizes, and the two grow closer and closer. He’s an oddball, with some peculiar behavior, but his quirk and charm win straight-laced, smart dressed Alice over.

That’s where Alice begins to suspect there’s something deeper to her boyfriend’s inconsistencies. She solicits a background check and learns he doesn’t exist: “He’s a ghost,” her PI friend Philip (Julian Barratt) tells her. Freegard has a simple explanation: he’s a spy. That car sales gig? Just a cover.

James Norton as Robert and Gemma Arteron as Alice embracing in Rogue Agent.
James Norton as Robert and Gemma Arteron as Alice in Rogue Agent. Photo: Courtesy IFC Films.

And so, Alice buys it. As Freegard, James Norton is utterly convincing, a rakish, roguish, charming cad with an easy manner and good looks to match. His Freegard knows just how to earn a mark’s trust: look them in the eyes long enough to know their color. It worked in Shropshire and it works in London; it works when enlisting a naive young college kid to the cause and when seducing a lawyer. Norton is plenty persuasive. Atherton’s Alice is no dupe, but she soon finds herself bilked of her life savings: £120,000.

Here’s where Rogue Agent becomes so, so much more than either a quirky romantic comedy or the cloak-and-dagger tale of an undercover espionage agent. Alice herself becomes the spy, the “rogue agent” of the title, doggedly determined to seek justice. It turns out she’s not Freegard’s only victim. The young college students he’d befriended a year ago are still under his control, and a new mark, an American academic (Sarah Goldberg) is at high risk herself. With the help of DC Sonny Chandra (Shazad Latif) and American Special Agent Sandy Harland (Edwina Findley), Alice hopes to learn and expose the full truth of Freegard’s con, one with a long trail of victims.

Film and streaming hardly lack these days for docuseries, docudramas, biopics and the like telling the tales of fraudsters, grifters, and gaslighters, from Elizabeth Holmes, Rick Singer, and Michelle Carter to the minds behind WeWork, LuLaRoe, and the Frye Festival, whose stories have been told in documentary and scripted form alike to the point of a near-meaningless redundancy. All of these tend to focus on the criminal. Rogue Agent takes the other route: while as Freegard Norton is given enough screen time to convince as a charming cad, the narrative is ultimately about Arterton’s Alice’s victim-to-avenger arc.

That’s what makes Rogue Agent special, to my thinking: it cunningly plays with genre tropes (rom-com, spy thriller) like an expert con man itself, before revealing that its true purpose is to tell the story of Freegard’s victims. The film never forgets that those college students—especially (Marisa Abela) as poor Sophie, whose tale of abuse had me in tears—were Freegard’s first victims but not his last. Rogue Agent‘s perspective and pacing are pitch perfect in revealing the full extent of Freegard’s crimes.

A medium shot of Marisa Abela as Sophie, dressed in a grey tank top.
Marisa Abela as Sophie in Rogue Agent. Photo: Courtesy IFC Films.

And those are many! The British con man, whose story has also been told in the Netflix documentary mini-series The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conmanas well as a British television show and over the years in the print press, long eluded prosecution as he piled up victims. Rogue Agent‘s script—co-written by Patterson, Lawn, and Michael Bronner—does not slavishly stick to the exact facts of the Freegard (aka Robert Hendy-Freegard) case, instead substituting names (including Alice’s and Sophie’s) and conflating cases. But the truth it tells is unambiguous.

Whether Freegard’s is a name you know or not, his story—and that of the “rogue agent” who doggedly pursued the truth of his long con—is one worth knowing. It’s all too easy to fall for a charming ruse, but the consequences can be perilous. Rogue Agent‘s convincing performances, canny script, and focus on its hero’s pursuit of justice make it far, far more than the mere spy caper its simple title suggests.

A production of Rabbit Track Pictures, Great Point Media, The Development Partnership, and Night Train Media, Rogue Agent releases theatrically on August 12 from IFC Films and premieres concurrently on the AMC+ streaming service.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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