Review of THE AGENT, a film about a writer and his literary agent

The Agent

  • Directed by Lesley Manning
  • Written by Martin Wagner
  • Starring Stephen Kennedy, William Beck, Maureen Lipman
  • 80 minutes, available on iTunes

“It’s not a real gun, of course. It’s more a metaphorical one.”

What more gratifying line could a scriptwriter invite a desperate novelist to deliver as he raises his weapon toward the head of his indifferent literary agent? Even more satisfying—both to the plot and to any artist-viewers who may have been feeling powerless or even disposable of late—the metaphorical gun will force agent Alexander Joyce to create a bidding war among publishers for Stephen Parker’s second novel, Black: a property Joyce has already dismissed as hopelessly unmarketable. In fact, until Parker’s threat completely changes the dynamics between the two, the agent’s greatest aspiration for their meeting (which he has somehow fitted in between the kinds of intriguing things that agents do all day) is that Parker will simply go away —forever. Joyce has bigger fish to fry.

Parker has arrived for this meeting—by bus, four months after he first sent in the manuscript—full of hope and at the end of his tether. If this second novel doesn’t sell, his wife will likely take the kids and leave him. He will have to find a job. Backpacked and rumpled, Parker (equal parts nerdy insecurity and steely overconfidence, played to perfection by Stephen Kennedy) plies an emotional razor’s edge through his meeting with Joyce. He wavers back and forth from cowering submission to his agent’s every word, to desperate self-assurance as he sees his beloved manuscript moving closer to rejection. He will  “do anything” to get this novel published.

Joyce, for his part, is in the business of literary agency not because of any deep love for books: he’s a salesman, in it for the money. (“There are no real readers any more,” he scoffs to Parker at one point. “When is the last time you sat down and read a book just for the pleasure of it?”… to which Parker, mystified, replies, “Last week?”) In addition to his forceful explanation of the realities of publishing, Joyce (energetically and convincingly portrayed by William Beck) absently points out vague flaws in Parker’s new novel (the title is horrible, the characters too passive, it needs a bigger crisis … that sort of thing: unfortunately he can’t find his notes), and reduces Parker below even his normal level of dejection by reminding him that his first novel may have attracted good reviews, but there were no sales at all.

But Joyce does love his work. His passion is for the “the deal”: he loves to play one publisher off against another, to get the highest price possible for any book he does believe will sell—and then to wring out even more. As viewers, we are forced to ask ourselves what writers would not want agents just like this to represent them? We also recognize that Joyce’s concerns about Black sound valid—the novel is not dramatic enough to be commercial. Its author has no track record. He is not young enough, nor sexy enough, nor female.

By the time Parker draws his metaphorical weapon, we are utterly sympathetic to his plight—but, much to our surprise, we also feel some respect and understanding for the agent. We recognize that it is at this juncture, every day, in locations like this office, that creative genius meets the bottom line—the dollar, the yen, the pound—and we know that art does not often emerge alive from confrontations such as these.

The Agent, the film version of a play that ran in London in 2007, is in every way a story about perspectives. At the outset, only the writer has anything invested in the project—and he has everything invested (some might say too much, while others would say that without this degree of investment, “art” can never happen). To Stephen Parker, the 350 pages he is submitting to his agent represent several years of his past and all of his hopes for the future. But for everyone else along the line—from the postal clerk who stamps the package (and who forces Parker to admit straight off that it contains “nothing important”) through Joyce to the publisher (Lipman)—who is really looking for someone young and hot but will settle for a middle-aged author if a book is really really good (which this one is. She knows it. She has read it. Not in this case because the system works to get good literature to her desk, but rather because it doesn’t), it is just another manuscript, another day’s work.

But once the “gun” is drawn, the manuscript takes on new weight: suddenly its potential impact on the life of the agent is equal to its meaning for the writer.

One of the most remarkable achievements of The Agent is that it allows even the most irate and jaded writer in the audience to see that a literary agent is human too, with needs and goals that are important and worthy of respect in the larger world of publishing. Alex Joyce is not at all a bad guy. He is in business to feed himself, his family and the clients who are able to write in such a way that will earn them all a living.

There seems to be no doubt that Martin Wagner has written this script out of personal experience. The humour is bitingly real—from the writer’s knowing more about the agent’s assistant’s life than the agent does himself, to the physical inaccessibility of the agent’s office, to the parallels and variations between the lives of the writer and the agent (case in point: their dental work, or in Parker’s case, the lack of it).

Viewers with no connection to publishing (or filmmaking, or visual art, or to the music industry) will probably see The Agent as a droll drama set in a bizarre world far beyond their ken. Artists will see the film for what it really is: a story that contains the classic elements of both tragedy and comedy, with dialogue so real it will make them cringe, cause their eyes to tear up, and set their heads to nodding until their necks ache. They will find in The Agent a tale of horror, with a lining that—true-to-life—always seems for the artist to be more black and heartbreaking than silver.

The Agent was released directly to DVD, and is now available via iTunes and other outlets.

3 responses

  1. Nice write up, Mary. Thank you. Though the film sounds a little on the depressing side for my comfort level — I relate way to closely to characters (books and movies) and, therefore, would feel too much of their angst.

  2. I watched this film on Netflix and thought that the characterizations of the agent and the writer and their dialogue in the office about writing and selling was very acutely observed and had the ring of truth. Unfortunately, the film lost me when it veered off into the mechanics of the blackmail subplot, which I found a bit confusing and provided a disappointing resolution to the story.

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