Set in Lisbon during the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which ended Portugal’s dictatorship and its colonial ambitions, Stan Douglas’s The Secret Agent is a faithful update of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel about the machinations of terrorists and their police antagonists in London. Despite Douglas’s creative use of a six-channel installation—characters in dialogue appear on facing screens and certain scenes are depicted from multiple angles—there’s something oddly claustrophobic about the feature-length cinematic work, which resembles at times a PBS period drama. The actors, cast in Portugal, speak with pan-European accents and often with flat affects. Combined with the overall grayness of 1970s Lisbon, the drab dialogue makes the work a rejoinder to the post-punk glamour bestowed on the era’s revolutionary violence in the 2010 television miniseries “Carlos,” or to the fun of a spy-vs.-spy James Bond film. The police and terrorists alike are small, bumbling, and dreary. Like Douglas’s celebrated photographs (a selection of which are concurrently on view at Zwirner’s 20th Street location), The Secret Agent is a tour de force of set and costume design, awash in accurate details. But the tangled narrative of petty conflict serves almost as a bulwark against nostalgia and romance. As might be expected for a motion picture by a renowned photographer, there is a pervading sense of stasis here. “The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket,” as the anarchist Professor says in Conrad’s book. “Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical.” –William S. Smith
Pictured: Still from Stan Douglas's The Secret Agent, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York and London.