Ken Loach's "Hidden Agenda" must be the most buttoned-down movie about a conspiracy theory ever made. Set in Northern Ireland in the early '80s, the film turns on the information contained in a single cassette tape -- information linking the CIA, British intelligence and the Conservative Party in a 1970s conspiracy to dishonor Labor Prime Minister Edward Heath and guarantee a Conservative victory.
The tape was made by a former army officer named Harris (Maurice Roeves), who sets the events of the film in motion when he attempts to hand it over to an American lawyer named Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), who along with his fiancee, Ingrid (Frances McDormand), is a member of the International League of Civil Liberties. The league is in Belfast to gather information on reports of mistreatment by the British security forces, particularly allegations of the use of torture during interrogations of suspected IRA members and the implementation of a "shoot to kill" policy by the Ulster police.
Harris, who's on the run from British security and under the protection of the IRA, wants Paul to make the revelations on the tape known to the world. And Paul, who is scheduled to leave that day, is interested enough to arrange a meeting with Harris outside the city. However, on the way to the meeting he and a Catholic collaborator are run off the road and murdered, prompting the government to send in a special investigator -- a career cop named Kerrigan (Brian Cox) -- to piece together the facts.
Loach, whose background is in documentary filmmaking, gives the events a genuine air of up-to-the minute immediacy. The movie's agenda is anything but hidden: It wants to call attention to the situation in Northern Ireland and to British abuses of civil rights. In this, Loach and his screenwriter, Jim Allen, are ardently Republican in their sympathies; they present the British abuses as a forgone conclusion. But they don't fall into the trap of presenting the sentiments from either side in cheap melodramatic terms. They leave the issues complex, honest.
Most of the film involves the unlikely partnership between Kerrigan and Ingrid, who together begin to piece together the story. After discovering the importance of the tape, they manage to track down Harris, who leads them into the heart of the IRA. The movie's best scenes, though, are close-in confrontations between Kerrigan and Brodie (Jim Norton), the Ulster police chief. As Kerrigan, Cox is a no-frills, squared-away sort of guy; he's got integrity, but he doesn't make a big show of it. Kerrigan won't be muscled by either side, but neither will Brodie, and their scenes together are like bare-knuckle brawls between dinosaurs.
Cox's greatest talent is his ability to make quietness thrilling. He's a naturally realistic actor, and he does detailed, resonant work without the slightest trace of mechanism. McDormand, on the other hand, seems to strain for her emotions; there's too much labor in her outrage, and not enough natural feeling. Since there's no tension between her character and Kerrigan, no hint of romance, you can't help but wish that she and Dourif had changed places.
In general the movie promises more than it delivers. The story hooks us, but just as Kerrigan begins to climb the rungs of the conspiracy to the upper echelons of the British hierarchy -- just as the real stonewalling and the real pressure begin -- the movie's energy dissipates. Part of the difficulty is that apart from suggestions of a pervasive, system-wide corruption, the script never makes a very clear connection between the contents of the tape and the troubles in Northern Ireland. (Margaret Thatcher, of course, is the movie's real target, and the filmmakers couldn't have been very happy that she left office before the film was released here.) In effect, Northern Ireland becomes less and less relevant as the story progresses. The movie spreads out into a more generic political thriller, and in doing so, blunts what had made it distinctive, its journalistic edge. Still, the film has intelligence and, as agitprop thrillers go, a kind of reportorial integrity. It makes the unthinkable seem all too plausible.
Hidden Agenda, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence and strong language.