The British director is a thoughtful pick for this real-life drama.
One of the UK’s most promising up-and-coming directors is finally hitting the big leagues with a Cold War drama. Deadline reports that A United Kingdom director Amma Asante is set to helm a Ben August-penned adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David E. Hoffman’s “The Billion Dollar Spy.” Hoffman’s 2015 book tells the true story of a high ranking USSR engineer who provided the CIA with tens of thousands of highly classified documents during the Cold War. Adolf G. Tolkachev quickly became a hugely valuable asset for the Americans but, curiously, his most significant demand was not for a financial reward but, instead, gifts for his son.
It’s this disarmingly human detail that makes Asante such a great choice to bring this story to the big screen. She’s so far specialized in narratives dealing with race and identity across borders, but this Cold War spy thriller is better suited to her than one might initially think. For one, all of her films — besides her social realist debut, A Way of Life — have been historical dramas, spanning from 18th-century England (Belle, her second feature) to World War II, for the upcoming interracial romance, Where Hands Touch, starring Amandla Stenberg and George MacKay. But, within these hugely significant historical contexts, Asante’s focus has always remained on the characters. If her previous films are anything to go by, the human stakes of The Billion Dollar Spy will be as high as the political ones.
She’s also known for drawing very strong performances from her actors. Her two most recent leads, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo, both received plaudits for their performances, the former as the mixed-race daughter of a British Royal Navy Admiral in Belle and the latter playing King Seretse Khama of Botswana, who controversially married a white British woman, in A United Kingdom. This talent for working with actors may stem from Asante’s history as a child actor in British children’s television.
It took nine years for Asante to get Belle made, even after A Way of Life won her a BAFTA Film Award, so it’s great to see her working on a steady flow of new projects. And, unlike some of her peers, she hasn’t yet been snapped up for a franchise picture and has instead slowly built up a highly personal filmography. America has finally come calling in the past few years, but this would be her first US project to go the distance. She was at one point set to direct the Katherine Heigl/Rosario Dawson erotic thriller Unforgettable, but The Billion Dollar Spy, fortunately, seems a far better match for her filmmaking sensibilities.
All of her films have received very positive notices (and remarkably consistent Rotten Tomatoes scores), but they’ve yet to have really broken out at the box office, especially outside of the UK. That being said, bFox Searchlight Picturesoth Belle and A United Kingdom are still among the highest grossing films directed by black women (domestically). It looks like Asante could soon have two more films on that list.