Counter-factual history as an academic discipline has generated fascinating speculation on the roots and causes of historical events, an area previously explored most effectively by such novelists as Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton with SSGB and Keith Roberts in Pavane. Author Robert Harris first came to prominence with a book about the (fake) Hitler diaries and the alternative history novel Fatherland, in which the Allies lose World War II. In his 1998 novel Archangel the historian Fluke Kelso (played on screen by a tough, resourceful but also slightly uneasy pre-James Bond Daniel Craig) is on the hunt for Stalin’s secret diary.
While the interpretive possibilities of alternative takes on the recorded past were established on-screen by the likes of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1964 imagining of the Nazi occupation of England in It Happened Here, this adaptation of Archangel suggests that the television thriller remains perhaps too conservative a genre to fully exploit them. The novel was originally developed as a feature film screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the team behind comedy classics The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, as a Mel Gibson vehicle, but little of their ironic wit seems to have survived in the version that eventually made it to TV. Instead the finished serial seems content to indulge every cliché of the Cold War thriller genre – from the cimbalom soundtrack to the interfering American journalist lurching eventually to a limp climax lifted straight from the John Frankenheimer school of conspiracy movies (such as the infinitely superior original version of The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin).
Still, authenticity is however provided by some actual location shooting in Moscow and
a genuinely impressive performance from Konstantin Lavronenko (the father figure in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s extraordinary arthouse hit The Return) helps lift the final part of the serial, especially an eerie sequence in a secluded cabin; but as the clichés and hackneyed situations pile up they only lead to a frustratingly cursory finale that smacks of desperation while also removing some of the book’s original ambiguity
The DVD offers a 16:9 anamorphic transfer that is sharp and technically free of any problem while the extras are limited to a stills gallery and a 15-minute documentary that focuses on the filming in Latvia in which Craig as narrator is made to refer to himself glowingly in the third person. Oddly, the version of the serial presented in the UK release is not the two-parter which originally aired on British TV, but a three episode re-edit prepared for the export market.