30th April 2024

The Veil review: nothing special

Elisabeth Moss and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight deliver a spy show stretching across Europe and three intelligence agencies grappling with a terrorist threat. But it’s not as thrilling as it needs to be, and the commentary rarely hits the right beats.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Elisabeth Moss in The Veil
Elisabeth Moss as Imogen Salter in The Veil // Photo: Disney/FX

Deep into its six-episode run, The Veil—the new Elisabeth Moss-led spy thriller miniseries from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight—showcases the best version of itself. The Veil hits at the double standards of the West through a conversation between a British intelligence operative (Moss) and a suspected ISIS commander (Yumna Marwan, from Little Birds). The former accuses the latter of being a terrorist, as she’s been covertly planning to blow up thousands of people, and that she’s choosing to do it willingly, not being coerced into it as she might have her believe. In response, Marwan’s character rightly points out how the West does the same—and continues to do so—in the East, occupying, razing, killing, and destroying. But that it’s only a tragedy when it happens on their land.

Unfortunately, The Veil isn’t consistently successful, and the show’s commentary is muddled or even partially problematic in many places. Narratively, too, it’s all over the place by the time it’s done—a dozen revelations are packed into the final episode—and the limited series is dragged away from its original storyline.

A bit like Killing Eve

At its core, The Veil is about two women with a traumatic past who possess the ability to assume new identities and blend into their surroundings. Despite being on opposite sides, these shapeshifters have a lot in common with one another. In a way, it feels inspired by the Phoebe Waller-Bridge-created spy thriller series Killing Eve, with the target and her handler another version of the assassin and the woman trying to catch her.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game. They are always observing and trying to suss each other in a bid to stay two steps ahead. And though they are both lying or deceiving, they still stick around to get what they want. That said, there’s no sexual tension between the two on The Veil. (Interestingly, the Killing Eve link is present off camera too, with Daina Reid—who has worked with Moss on The Handmaid’s Tale and Shining Girls—sharing directing duties with Damon Thomas who directed nine Killing Eve episodes. Reid and Thomas split the six episodes between themselves.)

Elisabeth Moss and Yumna Marwan in The Veil
Elisabeth Moss as Imogen Salter and Yumna Marwan as Adilah El Idrissi in The Veil // Photo: Disney/FX

The Veil gives into clichés and stereotypes

But for most of its runtime, The Veil proceeds as a spy series about three intelligence agencies that don’t trust each other. Shot across France, Turkey, and the UK—the series is multilingual, jumping between English, French, and Arabic—The Veil follows an MI6, CIA and DGSE agent as they team up to prevent an impending catastrophe. “Team up” is an overstatement, though, given how little they work together. Instead, they are always trying to track one another’s movements and listen in on each other’s conversations, so they may outsmart everybody else and leave them behind.

It comes really close to commenting on America’s overreach and terrible practices. But Knight also tends to rely on clichés and stereotypes about everyone that he sprinkles across the show. Americans are self-interested and always run things their way, but they are also the ones who pick up the tab. Meanwhile, the French run 9–5, only work designated hours and take three-hour lunches. These tired jokes are a showcase of lazy writing and The Veil catering to the American gaze.

I’ve also tired of storylines where it’s the duplicitous Arabs or Muslims who are planning great acts of violence and the noble Western powers—the US, the UK, and France are all represented here—are out saving the free world. Who’s going to remind them they work for the agencies and governments that are responsible for much of the real-world violence inflicted on civilians that is never condemned?

Ultimately, The Veil is less than the sum of its parts. It may have the trappings of something unique—two clever female leads, including the protagonist and antagonist, joined at the hip for long stretches—but it’s unable to bring together the promising pieces into a satisfying whole.

The plot of The Veil—from Syria to France and beyond

In a snowy UNHCR refugee camp near the Syrian–Turkish border, a woman who calls herself Adilah El Idrissi (Marwan) is put into secured isolation after her fellow refugees claim she’s an ISIS commander called Sabaine Al Kubaisi. MI6 agent Imogen Salter (Moss) soon arrives disguised as a medical NGO worker, springs Adilah, and the two set off for a camp in Turkey. Imogen claims she’s doing it to protect Adilah. But she’s actually going to be handed off to French and American intelligence who believe her to be Djinn Al Raqqa—a ruthless high-ranking officer in the Syrian city that was once ISIS’ capital and supposedly the most wanted woman in the world. As The Veil notes, genies were originally shapeshifters and Adilah’s legend is built as a woman who can disguise herself as anything.

The reserved Adilah claims that all she wants is to be reunited with her daughter in Paris, whom she was forced to abandon after joining ISIS. Thanks to a twisted past that draws her to this line of work, and vulnerable women in particular, Imogen believes she can coax the truth out of Adilah and wants to understand how a Parisian fringe model ends up working for radical Islamists. Instead of dropping her off at the next camp, Imogen decides to take her not-a-prisoner to the French capital herself. As The Veil progresses, we learn about Adilah’s life and family (that harkens back to France’s colonial and imperialist past) and Imogen’s personal demons (which involve implied abuse and potentially some daddy issues).

Imogen’s rogue movements set off alarm bells in Paris, where high-ranking CIA officer Max Peterson (Josh Charles, from The Good Wife) is in town to monitor the operation. He makes his displeasure known, especially the fact that the DGSE liaison Malik Amar (Dali Benssalah, from No Time to Die) is Imogen’s ex-lover and Adilah is roaming through a NATO ally in Turkey with little protection. Unwilling to rely on anyone else—be it the British or the French—the Americans assume it as their op. But their bossy way of doing business has a cost, too.

Josh Charles in The Veil
Josh Charles as Max Peterson in The Veil // Photo: Disney/FX

In The Veil, a game to figure out the other

The Veil is low on action and high on intrigue. In most episodes, Imogen and Adilah are trying to figure out each other, be it what they might be thinking or hiding, who they might be seeing or talking to, and what they could be planning. Apart from serving the thrills that you expect of a spy series, Knight makes a point to add humour. Imogen is written as a bit cheeky and witty agent. She likes to joke and make light of her situation. But the show doesn’t trust the audience to understand and pick up on it, which is why a character tells her she’s funny in the first episode.

Moss is better as a dramatic actress, though, I feel; the humour bits don’t come to her naturally. It helps that the show becomes less comedic as the plot thickens, with Moss stronger as a result as The Veil goes through its six episodes. Kudos to Marwan as well—Adilah is very internal which can be hard to channel for an actor but she’s able to convey the inner turmoil she’s going through. As co-lead opposite Moss, she has a lot to live up to and she more than holds her own. I wasn’t entirely sold on Moss’ British accent—which is curious, to say the least—but I got used to it and it bothered me much less in later episodes.

The post-9/11 obsession with Arabs and Muslims

Ever since 9/11, Hollywood has been obsessed with a second attack—a much bigger one—on home soil. TV shows like the Kiefer Sutherland-led 24 and Claire Danes-led Homeland routinely played into that fear, with the protagonists helping avoid a deadly attack each season. In many cases, the villains are Arabs or Muslims whose motivations to attack the West are unclear or non-existent. The Veil gives into that paranoia for its fictional tale—though Adilah is comparatively much better developed as a character, her own motivation isn’t clearly specified. Knight wants to make her a complicated figure but struggles to flesh her out.

Yumna Marwan in The Veil
Yumna Marwan as Adilah El Idrissi in The Veil // Photo: Disney/FX

On the show, anyone who speaks Arabic tends to be involved with something illegal or worse. (The series badly fails the Riz Test, the Muslim equivalent of the Bechdel test.) There are no well-developed good-nature Arabs on The Veil. Its only attempt to balance it out is Malik who has French-Algerian descent. But unlike every other Muslim in the series, we never see Malik speak or behave in any way that feels any bit Muslim. The messaging—to Americans, the series’ primary target audience—is essentially that anyone who doesn’t talk or behave like us is a threat.

Meanwhile, the reality since 9/11 is that the US has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians across Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to say of the countries it sponsors (from Israel to Saudi Arabia) that have killed even more civilians (across Palestine and Yemen) using American weapons. Most of them were Muslim. But who wants to watch a show about that, right?

The first two episodes of The Veil are out on Tuesday, April 30 worldwide. A new episode drops weekly every Tuesday until May 28. The Veil is available on Hulu in the US, and Star+, Disney+, or Disney+ Hotstar elsewhere.

Akhil Arora

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