Complicit: David Oyelowo and Arsher Ali shine in Channel 4’s thought-provoking conspiracy drama

by Matt D

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It’s fair to say that most spy dramas rely heavily on shoot-outs and chase sequences in exotic locations with beautiful people surrounding our spying protagonists. In reality though working for MI5 is nothing like it is portrayed in the films or in programmes such as Spooks but instead is quite a mundane occupation or so I’m led to believe. This is one of the themes of Channel 4’s one-off conspiracy drama Complicit which ironically stars former Spooks actor David Oyelowo as Edward Ekubo an MI5 agent who believes a terrorist attack is about to happen if even if his superiors don’t believe him.

Right from the start of Complicit the MI5 headquarters are portrayed as a soulless building populated by grey filing cabinets, cramped cubicles and a constantly in-use photocopier. Edward meanwhile has been tracking terror suspect Waleed Ahmed, played by Four Lions actor Arsher Ali, for the best part of three years and now believes he is going to strike any minute. Edward’s surveillance of Waleed includes several cameras set up in a local cab office as well as a number of contacts who have information about Waleed and his family members. Despite feeling he has enough information to make a move on Walleed his superiors don’t agree and when he visits Monica Dolan’s Judith, the sort of ‘M’ figure of the drama, she tells him they aren’t progressing with his case because of a lack of evidence. Eventually Edward is able to put a case together when he discovers that Waleed is going to Yemen allegedly to attend a cousin’s wedding however the cousin in question is one that despises Waleed. Eventually Edward is convinced that Waleed is going to Yemen in order to pick up ricin, a powerful poison that can kill instantly, when he intercepts an e-mail about a ‘linen order’ being ready. Though at first his superiors are unconvinced by his theories they still agree that there is enough to send Edward overseas to monitor Waleed’s behaviour and to ultimately discover if he does plan to commit acts of terror.

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True to their word the authorities do in fact arrest Waleed on his way back from Yemen when he goes to a friend’s house in Cairo. Edward goes to Cairo where he meets the MI5’s Man in Egypt Tony Coveney. Tony informs Edward that three men have given evidence implicating Waleed in a terror plot however as this evidence was gathered via torture it is unclear how reliable it is. Meanwhile when the pair question Waleed he is less than forthcoming with information instead threatening to report the local authorities for torture showing a bruise on his wrist as evidence of this. Throughout Complicit Waleed is presented as a fairly intelligent man and here he is able to use the law to make sure that Edward and Tony can’t interview him until they’ve fully investigate his accusations of torture. Edward is frustrated that he is forced to sit tight and wait as he believes that Waleed is using various regulations to buy time so that the ricin can be delivered into the UK. Unbeknownst to Tony, Edward goes off on his own investigation and firstly talks to Waleed’s arresting officer who claims he wasn’t tortured and obtained his bruises when he resisted arrest. Edward then visits the notorious Colonel Hazem Ashraf who informs him that Waleed wasn’t tortured however the farmers that were questioned about Waleed were beaten until they gave him information. Edward later interviews Waleed without Tony’s knowledge and the exchange between the pair is incredibly tense with both threatening violence against the other. After Waleed continues to claim that he knows nothing of the ricin plot, Edward believes he only has one course of action remaining to him and goes to visit Colonel Ashraf about forcing the truth from Waleed.

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Complicit offers up several important questions about suspected acts of terror namely should you be able to torture one man if it saves the lives of many? This question is never fully answered however in a way I didn’t mind that and I’d liked the fact that we never really knew if Waleed was a terrorist or not. What I did enjoy throughout was the frustration felt by Edward throughout the piece firstly when he feels he’s been over-looked at work and later when his interrogation of Waleed is delayed while the torture investigation goes ahead. Writer Guy Hibbert perfectly paces the plot with the opening half hour devoted to putting across the character of Edward who as a man who clearly loves his country and wants to protect it so the next generation, including his young daughter, can feel safe. Unlike most fictional MI5 agents David takes the tube rather than driving a glamorous car and instead of sending him off on missions straight away his superiors have to agree that his case is one of high priority. For me Complicit really gets going once Edward lands in Cairo and peaks with the five minute scene devoted totally to Edward’s questioning of Waleed which simply features two characters talking in a room. The final scenes are also well written, with the dialogue between Judith and Edward being fairly chilling, and although not everybody will enjoy the ambiguous ending I thought it was the right choice for a though-provoking drama like this one. Director Niall MacCormick also creates some strikingly visual scenes presenting the MI5 world as one of bureaucracy and Cairo as a crowded, noisy place where Edward is seemingly trapped in his dimly-lit hotel room. What I enjoyed most about the cinematography was the constant focus on Waleed’s eyes which appear to tell a different story than the one that is coming from his mouth.

David Oyelowo gives a quiet understated performance as Edward and pulls off the hard task of creating a compelling character that we never tire of despite appearing in every scene. Oyelowo is able to communicate without dialogue and there are plenty of silent scenes within Complicit that portray Edward’s frustration and the fact that he believes he is right. Arsher Ali is also brilliant as Waleed an antagonistic yet intelligent man who is aware of his rights and knows exactly how to use them a fact that winds Edward up no end. His threatening nature, and his aforementioned suspicious eyes, makes us believe that he is involved in a terror plot so we almost get as frustrated as Edward when the truth is never revealed. Meanwhile the supporting cast is well rounded out by Paul Ritter, Stephen Campbell Moore and Monica Dolan who is great as the cold, brutal Judith especially in the final scenes of Complicit.

Overall Complicit is a great drama that dispels a lot of the myths that have previously been present in other TV shows and films that focused on the world of spies. This drama also explores the themes on how the questioning of terror suspects has changed and how the way that the interrogators operate has also altered somewhat. I really liked how the bulk of the story is left to our imaginations, down to the fact that no actual torture is seen on screen, and ultimately this is an incredibly thought-provoking drama which will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Did you enjoy Complicit? What did you think to it as a drama? Leave Your Comments Below.

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3 Comments

  1. Laraine Pearson on February 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Absolutely amazing. Thoroughly enjoyed the storyline. Definitely food for thought. Well done Channel 4.

  2. David Keen on February 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    A very well-acted film, with a compelling story. The reality of Cairo was beautifully displayed, which lent credence to the other more serious parts of Complicit.

  3. Pat Sheerin on February 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Well acted but I thought the “ricin plot” was a bit old hat. In reality in the vast majority of cases innocent people are arrested, imprisoned and tortured simply because they look the part (e.g.muslim today, IRA yesterday). I’d like to see someone write a drama along those lines but I doubt if any channel would commission it.

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