‘Reilly: Ace of Spies’ – A Review

By Harold Frost

HistoryAccess.com, 2012

This TV miniseries is based on the life of Sidney Reilly, a master spy for Britain in the early 20th century, a man who apparently came close to defeating Lenin. 

Reilly died in 1925. He became famous a few years later when accounts of his career appeared in a London newspaper. In the 1950s, his reported exploits contributed to Ian Fleming’s creation of James Bond. In 1967, a writer named Robin Bruce Lockhart published a book about him; this work inspired the 12-part TV series, which premiered in 1983 in Britain and the U.S.

Lockhart’s accuracy has been challenged over the years. One author claims Reilly was as much con artist as spy, shamelessly exaggerating his adventures. Maybe so. I prefer to believe that Reilly led something like the fantastically interesting life described by Lockhart and depicted in the series. Given the murkiness of the world of espionage, the full truth might never be known. An example of the mystery attending his life can be found in a comment by the British scholar Ian Nish, an expert on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, who writes that one of the “unsolved riddles” of that conflict is Reilly’s precise role in it.

Might an archive in the Kremlin hold a transcript of the KGB’s interrogation of Reilly? Maybe the document will emerge someday and solve a few riddles.


“Reilly: Ace of Spies” is framed by large events – the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the lust for petroleum of the Royal Navy circa 1909, the European arms race that paved the way for the First World War, and, most importantly for the series, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent civil war and struggle for power.

The writing, by Troy Kennedy-Martin, is first-rate, as is the direction – Jim Goddard for six episodes and Martin Campbell for six. Campbell has directed two pictures in the Bond franchise, “GoldenEye” (1995) and “Casino Royale” (2006).

Art direction and set design are mostly splendid. Watching the shows we feel immersed in the early years of the 20th century even though the production is not especially high-budget. (Nor is it low-budget; it occupies the middle ground.) I might also mention the theme music – it’s perfect. (Links to the music appear at the end of this article.)

Sam Neill (photo above) creates a Reilly who is elegant, observant, and quietly ruthless. Neill is perhaps a bit too stiff on a couple of occasions but overall is very fine. He mostly pulls off his biggest acting challenge, convincing us that hot blood pulses beneath the layers of reserve and watchfulness. Reilly, deep down, some of the time, is not merely amused by his games for big stakes (in the manner of, say, James Bond) but is thrilled to the bone by them, by the prospect of changing the world. His jousts for power in the latter stages of the series are titanic in scope, with a lineage, he notes, that includes Genghis Khan.


Good supporting performances abound, drawn from the seemingly bottomless well of skilled British character actors. We have Leo McKern as weapons dealer Basil Zaharov, also known as “the Merchant of Death.” This is fine work from an actor (Australian-born) who enjoyed a wonderful long career ranging from the Beatles movie “Help!” to “Rumpole of the Bailey” to many Shakespearean roles. How, I wish to know, does McKern, as Zaharov, make his eyes absolutely, shockingly cold and evil? Not only his famous glass eye but both eyes? It’s one of the mysteries of the actor’s art.

The wealth of acting talent in “Reilly” – it’s quite stunning – I could mention any of several dozen beautiful performances. Tom Bell as Stalin’s henchman Dzerzhinsky….Clive Merrison as the brave and flawed Savinkov (who is the subject of this movie)….Diana Hardcastle as the pianist Anna, to whom Reilly is a half-brother (“Half-brother, half-lover!” calls a concierge to Anna and Sidney as they climb the steps to her apartment)….the late, great Celia Gregory as Nadia Massino, who, while feeling inflamed during a boar hunt, requests of Reilly (or is it an exquisitely gentle order?) that he slip his hand inside her tailored jacket.

I must also single out Aubrey Morris as Mendrovovich, a successful businessman who goes into partnership with Reilly in St. Petersburg. Morris delineates his character with a few swift strokes – we immediately care about this man, so canny, energetic, and wary. In caring about him, we connect to the terrible tightrope walked by Jews in Tsarist Russia. Morris appears in many productions including TV’s “The Prisoner” and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”

“Reilly” includes the best filmic portrayals of Lenin and Stalin that I’ve seen, offered by Kenneth Cranham and David Burke respectively. Lenin had a marked capacity for “riveted attention” according to historian Isaiah Berlin; Cranham captures this and embodies the man’s bursting-at-the-seams need to overhaul a corrupt world. David Burke’s performance as Stalin combines barely-repressed rage with bureaucratic diligence. His Stalin loves reading files. In them he knows he will discover shards of information that will preserve his position (this is the mid 1920s when he has not yet become all-powerful) and allow him to have people killed. Stalin studying files while wolfing down sardines straight from the tin: nice touch. One of his associates commenting disparagingly about this: perfect.

The series starts slowly. Episode One, “An Affair With a Married Woman,” is the weakest segment. Things pick up quickly; the story is humming by Episode Three, “The Visiting Fireman,” and hits notes of greatness when McKern arrives in Episode Five, “Dreadnoughts and Crosses.” (Here, we sense, in these large rooms with men from several governments examining new weapons, is where world politics gets decided.)

Episode Ten is my favorite: “The Trust” directed by Martin Campbell, which I would call one of the best hours of TV ever made, if it’s viewed in the context of previous segments. Among its highlights: a dimly-lit, echoing warehouse at the Port of New York where Reilly confronts the sinister Monkewitz (Forbes Collins)….a foggy lake, early in the morning, with two visitors….a car chase, mercifully brief and entirely convincing, given a grace note of insouciance by the supremely competent Reilly – at this moment, life is rather a game to him, a game that must be played with style, and, of course, won (similarly, in another episode, he puts a bullet in the brain of an attacker at 20 paces while being embraced by a gorgeous lover)….a cameo by auto pioneer Henry Ford of all people, played by Gordon Sterne….a heart-wrenching rendition of “The Soldiers of the Night” by Maria Plevitskaya (Caroline Hutchison). 

Women are vital to the series. In the Bond films, as we know, any woman under age 35 is mere eye candy (with an occasional exception; Sophie Marceau has some depth in “The World Is Not Enough” [1999]). In “Reilly” women are the soul of things, providing remarkably moving moments: in the courtyard of Lubyanka prison in Moscow; at a bon voyage party on an ocean liner; next to a fireplace in Long Island as Eugenie (Eleanor David) relates what happened to her in the Russian Civil War; etc. 

Some viewers don’t cotton to the element of mysticism that appears in the last episode or two. It works for me. First of all, it’s reasonably close to what actually happened. Second, it’s well-acted, centering on Joanne Pearce’s portrayal of Caryll Houselander. Third, it’s not over-done, it’s an aromatic spice added to the main dish. Fourth, it’s a logical culmination to the importance of women to the series.

Caryll Houselander, in common with most of the program’s characters, was an actual person, a gifted English mystic, psychic, healer, and artist who became an important writer in the 1940s. Her affair with Reilly in the 1920s changed her life – he helped her discover her capacity to love, which became profound. That such a woman would fall in love with Reilly says something interesting about them both. Background on Houselander can be found here and here. (Read the linked material with caution if you want to preserve a sense of surprise about how the series turns out.)

In 1986, in the wake of “Reilly,” Sam Neill was supposedly considered for the role of James Bond as replacement for the retiring Roger Moore. Neill might have gotten the job if he had had the foresight to pump some iron, but the part went to Timothy Dalton briefly and then devolved to Pierce Brosnan. No great loss for Neill, artistically speaking – consider, for example, his three triumphs in 1993: “Jurassic Park,” “The Piano,” and “Sirens.” Consider also the marvelous “A Cry in the Dark” (1988) and “Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill” (1995). He continues acting today and and makes fine pinot noir wine in New Zealand under the label Two Paddocks.

A 007 element in “Reilly” worthy of mention comes in Episode Ten. A character named Pepita (Laura Davenport) first meets Reilly in a Berlin hotel after she has enjoyed a bath in his suite and left wet towels all over the place. Surely this sequence is a nice parody of a hotel bathroom encounter in the 1965 Bond film “Thunderball.” (A list of the several figures who perhaps influenced the creation of James Bond, including Reilly, can be found here.)

“Reilly: Ace of Spies” came out on DVD in 2005. I find myself re-visiting it every year right after the World Series. There’s something autumnal about the show that I need, and something Russian – a chilly forest, the onset of winter, inexorable fate, a touch of melancholy, the immensity of history. I relish the hours I spend with the program.