If you’ve ever heard a story that sounds almost too wild to believe, you know the feeling of having the facts and characters resonate with you—and for good reason. Human nature is many things, but never boring. And the depths to which some people can go in abusing traits such as trust or power always offers a compelling narrative, and also, a cautionary tale.
That’s the case with ‘Rogue Agent,’ Netflix’s latest chilling true story starring James Norton—who also produced the film— directed by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson. Following the story of Robert Freegard, a career con man, the film examines not just the manipulative nature of its main character, but also, the victims he duped and how his charm was able to disarm virtually anyone.
The story first came to Norton, who plays Freegard, through an email. Journalist Michael Bronner set out to write an 11,000-word article on the ambiguous man who virtually kidnapped his victims through brainwashing, and lied his way into ruining the lives both financially and mentally of many.
“It was such a compelling, such a bizarre and such an unbelievable true story,” says Norton. “And we immediately latched on and realized this could be a fantastic movie.”
The idea and the character stayed with the actor for about 6 years before the wheels were set in motion with his production company, Rabbit Track Pictures, which he started with former TV Head Kitty Kaletsky.
“I’ve never had an experience like it. It’s been interesting to build the world and all of the characters and work out their journeys as well as my own, and trying to compartmentalize my roles as actor and producer in that respect,” Norton explains. “It really comes down to this man at the center of it. He’s really so peculiar and mysterious and such an enigma. And for me it’s such a fun and interesting challenge to try and unpick that puzzle.”
The puzzle of Robert Freegard also sparked curiosity from both Lawn and Patterson as directors as well. And it’s actually a bit more personal.
“I had been in a relationship years ago with a sociopathic liar, and I completely sacrificed reason and objectivism—I was an investigative journalist and I couldn’t even see what was happening to me. And my friends couldn’t either. It took a lot to excavate me from that,” Patterson explains.
Lawn, also a former investigative journalist and a friend of Patterson during that time period also had a similar pull to the story.
“We both recognized something in it,” Lawn explains. “And I think as a filmmaker, if you have a personal interest in it, first of all you’re going to be fully committed every day to make it. And hopefully, the end result will be interesting to other people.”
In the beginning of the film, we meet Freegard early on in his life recruiting college students for his top secret work as an MI5 agent, and one of them—Sophie (Marisa Abela)—is cast under his spell for years to come. His charm then progresses as years go on, and it comes to a head in the film when he meets Alice (Gemma Arterton).
And as a viewer, especially if you aren’t fully aware of what the story is actually about, you’re taken on a ride just like Alice. As a lawyer, she has a keen mind and is skeptical at some points of Freegard. But, he’s always able to explain his absences, or why he has a woman calling his phone late at night, or even why people would approach Alice to claim that he’s not really who he says he is.
“We needed Freegard to be so seductive in the first half of the movie that even if you know he’s a con man, you can realize how Alice was seduced. And the audience could be seduced as well,” Lawn continues.
Norton also had a similar sentiment, but in the back of his and the filmmaker’s minds was always how to stay true to the victims.
“We discussed how much of this myth and this narrative did he actually believe… Early on and in the early versions of the script, we played with the idea that he actually fully believes he’s a spy. His delusion has gone so strong and to such a weird extent that on some level he is not playing, but actually is working for the government. We sort of moved away from that because it seemed like that was condoning someone who was really just vicious and self-centered,” Norton explains. “Where does the truth end and the manipulation begin? We kind of left it up to the audience to make that final decision.”
Although they had Bronner’s article to refer back to, and the journalist worked with both co-directors to write the script, there still wasn’t enough time to put everything in the film. But as Patterson says, ” we feel that we’ve delivered the essence of the truth.”
Patterson also went on to explain how both his and Lawn’s careers as investigative journalists shaped their view on the world. “We’ve spent many years in the trenches of the real world, and you get a very close handle on the psychology of different people and how people handle different situations. The one takeaway that Dec and I have from those years is that people are not black and white. It’s very convenient to think of them that way—that bad people just do bad things all the time and only do bad things, and that good people do good things. That’s of course not the way the world works,” he explains.
‘Rogue Agent’ shows the rise and fall of not just Freegard’s relationship with Alice, but also, an American psychiatrist, Jenny (Sarah Goldberg.) And as the story evolves, so does the impact of the con man’s blast radius in terms of relationships. But Alice doesn’t go down without a fight, and she comes after Freegard, and something similar happened to him in real life.
“He’s able to realize what it is that people lack and what they think they need to be happy and be able to use it against them, stealing all of their money and ruining their life. Like a therapist gone wrong. So, when he realized he had that power…it was intoxicating and he couldn’t resist doing it again and again,” says Norton.
On Sept. 6, 2005, Robert Freegard was found guilty on two counts of kidnapping, 10 counts of theft and eight counts of deception. He was sentenced to life in prison. In April 2007 however, the Court of Appeal quashed the two kidnapping convictions, and Freegard was later released from prison in 2009.
“It’s terrifying…it’s really sad and it’s unfair. But, unfortunately, the law and the legal system aren’t really built on fairness,” continues Norton. “I understand the logic…the appeal was based on that you can’t be put away for life for lying. But it’s really sad that our legal system doesn’t have the nuance or sophistication to incriminate him fully and protect the public.”
Netflix’s documentary ‘Puppet Master’ also goes into Freegard’s life after his release, and although it’s not a affiliated with ‘Rogue Agent’, Lawn says it’s a nice counterpart to the film.
Even when working on the movie, the cast and crew began getting phone calls of people saying they know someone, or as one caller said, was married to someone currently under Freegard’s spell. And they hoped this film could help other victims. But, the possibility that it was Freegard himself making the call did not escape their thought process either. That doesn’t destroy the purpose either way.
‘Rogue Agent’ is here to show how people can fall under someone’s spell and what happens when the truth is shadowed by charm, manipulation and deception. It’s not so much exploring the why, though that’s something that intrigues Norton, Lawn and Patterson. But, it serves a deeper purpose even as a thrilling watch.
“He’s an outlier, but Freegard is not unique. There are people out there like this,” finishes Lawn. “[We] hope this film helps shine a light on all of that, even with people who are like this in power. Where Freegard is doesn’t matter, but what he represents does.”
‘Rogue Agent’ opens in theaters and on AMC+ Aug. 12.
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