The Whistle Blower Review
Robert Jones (Nigel Havers) works as a Russian translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. Meanwhile, a couple of operatives suspected of being Soviet agents have died in apparent accidents, and GCHQ staff are encouraged to look out for suspicious behaviour in their colleagues. He confides to his father Frank (Michael Caine), a former GCHQ operative turned business-machine salesman, that he thinks the CIA are insisting that the British “plug the leaks” and that British Intelligence themselves, anxious to preserve their relationship with and funding from the Americans, may be behind the killings. The two men don’t know that they themselves are under surveillance. Then one day Robert dies in a fall…
The Whistle Blower seemed more than a little old-fashioned on its release in 1986. Eighteen years later, with the Velvet Revolution happening in between, it seems even more of a period piece. It remains a decent conspiracy thriller, with some literate dialogue from Julian Bond (from a novel by John Hale) and good acting as you might expect from this cast, but it’s fatally lacking in cinematic flair. Whatever that vital spark is which might have lifted it up a notch, is not here. Simon Langton is a long-established and versatile TV director (Pride and Prejudice and, more appositely, Smiley’s People among his credits) but this is remains his only cinema film to date. You can’t help feeling it plays better on a smaller screen.
Compare this film with, say, Costa-Gavras’s film Missing, made only five years earlier. Both films involve a politically conservative man (Jack Lemmon there, Michael Caine here) who is made to question his allegiances after the death of his son in suspicious circumstances. This comparison emphasises The Whistle Blower’s flaws. Robert, though he’s kitted out with Guardian-reader signifiers (glasses, scarf), doesn’t seem politically engaged at all, more like an idealist coming to realise that people don’t always play fair. He’s someone who believes that, as in a Western film, “the man in the white hat wins in the end”. Much of the strength of Missing came from the interaction between Lemmon’s character and that of his activist daughter-in-law (played by Sissy Spacek). The nearest equivalent to her in this film is Cynthia (Felicity Dean), a married woman with a daughter whom Robert is in a relationship with. Unfortunately this is an underwritten character with only two or three scenes of any note. Ultimately, The Whistle Blower lacks teeth: the system may contain traitors, and the establishment may join together to protect its own, but at the end of its day the system itself remains unchallenged.
The Whistle Blower was made by an independent company (Geoffrey Reeve Enterprises) and was originally released by the now-defunct Rank Organisation. It was previously released on DVD by budget label Prism, either on its own or as part of a pack of two DVD-10s with three other films (Against the Wall, Tiger Warsaw and Split Decisions. Now MGM have the rights, and have produced a basic DVD in keeping with much of the rest of their back catalogue. The disc is encoded for Regions 2 and 4, and like other recent MGM discs the menu uses symbols rather than text labels. Instead of the usual four symbols, there are two this time (play movie and scene access). Presumably because they only have the rights for English-speaking territories (UK/Ireland and Australia/New Zealand), MGM have not felt the need to provide subtitles of any kind. So once again the hard-of-hearing and non-native English speakers lose out.
The DVD transfer is anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9, with thin black bars on all sides. Judging by the framing of most shots, the intended cinema ratio would seem to be 1.75:1, which is in keeping with a lowish-budget British film of its period. Fred Tammes’s camerawork is efficient but nondescript and much could be said of the way it’s been transferred to DVD. There’s some soft grain more or less throughout and artefacting in the darker scenes, but shadow detail is good and the colours convincing.
The soundtrack is surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, more or less a direct port of the Dolby Stereo mix the film had on its cinema release. It isn’t a very adventurous mix, with the surrounds mainly being used for music and some directional effects, such as the plane flying overhead at the beginning of Chapter 2. This is a dialogue-driven film, and speech is clear and easily audible throughout. Just as well, with no subtitles to fall back on.
There are the standard sixteen chapter stops and no extras.
The Whistle Blower will hold your attention for the hour and a half it’s on screen, though how many people will want it in their permanent collection I don’t know. There are far better films out there, and this is just another bare-bones MGM disc – if anything even more bare-boned than usual.
Last updated: 02/06/2018 00:03:40