'Agenda' squanders premise

January 11, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Hidden Agenda'

Starring Frances McDormand and Brian Cox.

Directed by Ken Loach.

Released by Hemdale.

Rated R.

... ** It's a loathsome fact of modern life that those who we pay to protect us sometimes protect us too well. They destroy our villages to save them.

That distressing tendency is the subject proper of "Hidden Agenda," a political thriller set in Northern Ireland. It alleges that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in collusion with British intelligence and various British elite security units like S.A.S., targets and eliminates terrorists.

In real life, there are disturbing suggestions that this is indeed the case. A British police investigator named John Stalker seemingly uncovered evidence that at some level or other the British government had approved a "shoot-to-kill" policy which resulted in a disturbing amount of ambiguous deaths in Northern Ireland of suspected terrorists; his career foundered in allegations of impropriety, however, and some believe they were instigated to prevent him from "getting at the truth." There's also one flamboyant case on record where witnesses watched as British S.A.S. men gunned down some I.R.A. suspects on Gibraltar.

As it is, a fictional version of the Stalker investigation forms the basis of "Hidden Agenda," with stone-faced British actor Brian -- Cox as an intrepid investigator named Kerrigan, who gets to the bottom (rather quickly) of an affair which left two men dead one frosty morn in suburban Belfast, perforated by coppers with machine guns.

But it's as if this disturbing trend isn't quite vicious enough to enflame the radical conscience of filmmaker Ken Loach and his writer Jim Allen. They don't stop there, and that's where the movie goes all feathery on us.

It turns out that one of the victims was an American investigator for an outfit called the "International League for Civil Liberties," clearly an analogue to Amnesty International; the point of the killing is to recover a tape that helpfully indicts high members of the Conservative Party in (gasp) a nefarious plot from 10 years earlier to dump the ninny prime minister Ted Heath in exchange for macho stud Maggie Thatcher, by (gasp) starting rumors.

That's it? That's it. That's it!

Oh, my. It seems so completely silly.

"Hidden Agenda" comes on like bargain-basement Costa-Gavras, far more interested in its radical stance than in any fair investigation of possibilities or consideration of contexts (Irish terrorists, after all, do their fair share of murder, too.) And matters aren't helped by the presence of token yank Frances McDormand, her lips puffed in rectitude, running around declaring that Britain is like Chile and that this is how fascism starts.

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