What, Exactly, Is Elisabeth Moss Supposed to Be Doing in The Veil?

5 minute read

If there is any conversation around the new FX spy thriller The Veil, I fear it will be about Elisabeth Moss’s British accent. It isn’t a good one; it’s generic, with too many theatrical stresses—a voice that calls too much attention to itself. An over-the-top accent is easy to mock. But it’s only one small part of the show’s fatal problem: a star who is calamitously miscast.

Moss is a virtuosic actor with a broad range. She stole scenes as Mad Men’s initially naive, ultimately self-possessed upstart copywriter Peggy Olson and has, in her title role as a resilient resister of dystopian patriarchy, almost single-handedly carried The Handmaid’s Tale many seasons past its expiration date. Alex Ross Perry’s films Her Smell and Queen of Earth have confirmed her mastery of emotional maximalism. Yet some characters are anathema to even the most versatile performers, and in The Veil, premiering April 30 on Hulu, Moss has found one.

"THE VEIL" -- Pictured (L-R):  Elisabeth Moss as Imogen Salter, Yumna Marwan as Adilah El Idrissi.  CR: FX
Elisabeth Moss, left, and Yumna Marwan in The VeilFX

The protagonist of the six-part series—pseudonym du jour: Imogen Salter—is the kind of swaggering MI6 agent who makes international espionage look easy. After coldly informing her latest target, over Champagne, that he’s been caught, she pulls up to a snowy refugee camp on the border of Syria and Turkey. The displaced inhabitants have identified a woman in their midst, Adilah El Idrissi (Yumna Marwan), as an ISIS leader and tried to lynch her. Posing as an aid worker, Imogen is on a mission to relocate Adilah to a safer place where she can be pumped for information about a breakaway ISIS cell’s plan for an imminent attack on a Western target.

Imogen, we are told, is the very best agent for this kind of job. Simply by helping, listening to, and befriending Adilah—a sharp, well-educated French national with a beloved 10-year-old daughter waiting for her in Paris—she’s confident that she can extract the crucial details and preempt the attack. The French intelligence officers who have enlisted Imogen’s help, despite an erratic history, have their fingers crossed that she’s right. But the Americans who have, in typical fashion, butted in on a European operation aren’t convinced. A power struggle escalates, in the background, between Malik Amar (Dali Benssalah), Imogen’s French Algerian DGSE handler and sometime lover, and CIA man Max Peterson (Josh Charles), a xenophobic boor described by one French agent as “the most American American America has ever produced.”

"THE VEIL" -- Pictured:  Josh Charles as Max Peterson.  CR: FX
Josh Charles in The VeilFX

But the core of the series is supposed to be the bond Imogen forges with Adilah. They have plenty in common. Women of action, they are trained to fight and kill. Each distinguished herself within a cutthroat, male-dominated organization. (The Veil does acknowledge how rare a female ISIS commander would be, and in fact, such women do exist.) And they are both guided, in their respective high-stakes games of geopolitics, by fraught family histories and old wounds. Such a relationship could have been electric, fueling suspense around loyalties that could potentially shift and adding depth to creator Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) frustratingly shallow exploration of what makes an agent of state-sponsored violence so different from a terrorist.

In practice, though, Imogen and Adilah are two sticks that never generate enough friction to ignite, no matter how long Knight keeps rubbing them together. Guarded but palpably suffering, her commitment to anti-colonial warfare shakier than her love for her daughter, Marwan (Little Birds) gives us an Adilah as complex as any mortal enemy of Western civilization I’ve seen depicted on screen. But Moss builds a wall of artifice between the two characters. It’s as though playing a British secret agent has narrowed the range of emotions she’s capable of expressing.

"THE VEIL" -- Pictured (L-R):  Elisabeth Moss as Imogen Salter, Dali Benssalah as Malik Amar.  CR: FX
Elisabeth Moss and Dali Benssalah in The VeilFX

What’s really happening, I think, is that Moss (also an executive producer) has chosen a role whose success hinges on the one quality she’s incapable of portraying: ease. Peggy Olson, June from The Handmaid’s Tale, and Her Smell rocker Becky Something are very different characters, but what they share is a sense of effort. The difficulty of the tasks each of Moss’s heroines undertakes is always legible on her face. Imogen should be more of a James Bond type—a charming, reckless rogue agent, albeit one whose superpower is psychology.

Better casting would not have made this a great show. There are too many gaping plot holes and silly characters, like Max, for that. Knight freights the dialogue with ponderous statements (“I’m trying to create a system for this filthy chaos and broken humanity,” the leader of the refugee camp declares) and Shakespeare quotes that are anchored in Imogen’s past but convey little besides a desire for unearned profundity. Imogen, who adopts a different identity for every mission, speaks of a fascination with “annihilation of the self” that draws her to Adilah’s suicidal tactics. But that intriguing theme, like the show’s politics in general, remains undeveloped. Still, none of this makes it flimsier than the typical streaming-era thriller. With the right lead, it could’ve been a diverting potboiler. As is, The Veil never makes it past a simmer.   

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