The Iranian embassy siege was something I remember well, played out as it was on live television and being a huge fan of the docu-drama genre I anticipated this film most eagerly. First of all it was a right mission to get to see it at all and I expected it to have a much wider UK release. There was also confusing and conflicting information over the exact cinema release date given over the internet (First the 4th of August, then the 18th, then the 4th again!) Seeing it at the cinema resulted in me having to travel half the country!
For those who don't know the story, in April of 1980 the Iranian embassy was stormed by six armed men demanding the release of hostages in Iran over the mistreatment of their tribe by the Persians in Iran, but the UK had poor relations with Iran at the time and Iran was not going to give them anything. The UK was on it's own and for the first time in Television history, the actions of the largely anonymous Special Air Service, would be seen live for all to see.
The film is basically told from four main perspectives. An always excellent Mark Strong is hostage Negotiator, Max Vernon, a man acutely aware that lives are literally in his hands, and the emotional impact this has on him is one of the stronger aspects of the film and Strongs scenes are all appropriately gripping. Secondly is that of the SAS with Jamie Bell, in a very different role, playing Rusty Firmin, one of the soldiers leading the assault. Bell shows he has left the legacy of Billy Elliot well and truly behind him and is superb in this role. Tension notches up appropriately as he and his team ready themselves to go in. Thirdly is the insight into the upper echelons of the political discussions which went on between Billy Whitelaw (Tim Piggot-Smith in what may well have been his final role) as the options are raked over with an unseen Margaret Thatcher sending down her stance on terrorism. Ronan Vibert is noteworthy as the head of MI6 while Robert Portal plays SAS Colonel Mike Rose with the appropriate level of staunch professionalism while Martin Shaw adds gravitas to the proceedings though he is given very little to say or do.
Those inside the Embassy, both hostages and terrorists are fairly thinly drawn with the exception of the terrorist leader, Salim (A great performance from Ben Turner) and most of our insights into their interactions come via the other characters mentioned above. There is little attempt to humanise the Iranian hostages, we know nothing for example, about the one who is executed, so when this happens, we, the audience, feel little emotional loss. PC Trevor Locke stands out a little as he is given more to do, but just a few more lines of dialogue would have enabled us to emotionally connect with the hostages from the outset.
The fourth strand of the narrative is that of reporter Kate Adie and her cameraman, as they vie for the best shot over the reporter from a different rag (Either The Sun or The Mail, it wasn't clear to me) - I remember Kate Adie well from this reporting and felt Abbie Cornish was a little miscast in this role. She felt too glamorous with not a hair out of place and way too much makeup. This story line added very little to film. She spots the SAS leaving to train at one point and indicates she suspects more is afoot, but never vocalises her suspicions, so little is made of this. The interaction between her and the rival reporter could have been the cornerstone of lighter moments in this serious drama but they're lost and forgotten. This was the weakest element for me.
The siege unfolds over six days and it is the relationship between Mark Strong's character and terrorist leader Salim that is the most captivating.
Overall the film is paced well and Toa Fraser does an admirable job of handling the multiple characters and story lines, but the film starting as it does with the Embassy being taken, we have no time to get to know any of the hostages or feel a connection to them. A ten- minute sequence at the beginning of the film giving us an introduction to these characters would have made the emotional stakes a little higher for the viewer. BBC Sound Recordist Sim Harris is given little to say or do, so there is little context of who he is and the moment where he goes out onto the window ledge (An image scorched into the memory of all who saw it live on television) is not as dramatic and meaningful as it could have been.
The film side steps a few of the more controversial aspects of the raid. The terrorist who was captured was almost executed by the SAS out the back before they realised they were being filmed by the television station. I found the unobtrusive score lacked a dramatic emphasis at the appropriate moments and made it essentially underwhelming.
Overall, however, this is a solidly made drama with good performances and a suitable dour colour palette matching the setting of the 1980s and it shameful that such a drama, covering as it did, a flash point in UK history, did not receive a wider release. I would, despite my reservations, still recommend it.
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