Netflix’s new drama The Angel tackles the story of the enigmatic Ashraf Marwan, who is claimed by both Egypt and Israel as a master spy.
In October 1973, Egypt was planning a secret attack to recover Sinai, occupied by Israel in 1967. Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Nasser and close confidant of President Anwar Sadat, was privy to the date of the attack. The Angel is based on the theory that Marwan warned the Israelis the day before in an altruistic bid to prevent war. Did Israel receive the tip-off? If they did, they failed to mobilise and as a result suffered the ignominy of an Arab army retaking occupied territory.
But Sadat had previously set other secret dates, which Marwan had passed on, leading the Israelis to mobilise uselessly. After these false alarms, they dismissed the real date of Yom Kippur 1973. The Angel uses this ‘boy who cried wolf’ theory to explain why the spy was ignored.
Controversy has swirled around Ashraf Marwan for decades. Unfortunately, he’s saying nothing, having mysteriously fallen to his death in 2008 from the balcony of his posh flat in London.
I was enthralled by The Angel, an Israeli-US production running 1 hr and 54 minutes without a moment to catch breath. Ashraf Marwan, played by Marwan Kenzari, a Dutch actor of Tunisian background, is portrayed as an idealist who struggles to earn the trust of his Israeli controllers, although his idealism is tempered by the need to pay for his expensive lifestyle with the wads of cash he received for information. Was I convinced by this characterisation? I’m not certain. My viewing companion thought the plot needed more depth. But we were still talking about it the next day, which sets this movie apart from 90% of what is dished up the TV.
I have a special interest in The Angel. While I was writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour, Ashraf Marwan hovered in the back of my mind as I combed the literature on the Yom Kippur War. Cairo Mon Amour is an espionage romance that covers the same period as the movie. I happened to be studying Arabic at Cairo University during the Yom Kippur War, and it is not implausible that I passed Ashraf Marwan in the street or sat near to him in the Groppi café.
But the real bonus for me was the handling of the bilingual dialogue. As a PhD in Linguistics and a fiction writer, I’m a serial bore on the topic of foreign languages in English-language movies. If you hear me at a cocktail party complaining about Nicholas Cage’s Italian accent in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, just move away – it’s not pretty. If you insist on knowing my views, look here.
The Angel did the job beautifully, with the Arab characters moving seamlessly between subtitled Arabic to English and back again. Sometimes, the switch was triggered: In one scene, Egyptian officials are reminded that there is a non-Arabic speaker at the conference table, so they politely switch to English; in another, Marwan and his wife switch to English to hide their words from their small children. When there is no explicit trigger, speakers seem to switch from English to Arabic when the emotional temperature of the conversation rises. OK, so some of the language behaviour was not entirely plausible, but the writers of The Angel produced the best solution I’ve seen in a long time for what I call Chermans in ze movies spik like zis syndrome.
Big ticks from me for The Angel.