Film Review: 'The Tamarind Seed' (1974); Cold War Period Piece
Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif star in a Cold War spy drama directed by Blake Edwards.
The Tamarind Seed (1974), directed by Blake Edwards from his own script, based on a novel by Evelyn Anthony; starring Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Sylvia Sims, Bryan Marshall, and Dan O’Herlihy.
The Tamarind Seed is a Cold War spy thriller directed by Blake Edwards (the Pink Panther movies) as a dramatic vehicle for his wife, Dame Julie Andrews. At the time. Andrews was trying pretty hard to break out of her Goody-Two-Shoes image forged by her roles in her two most famous films, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. This film, like her other Cold War thriller, Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966), was an attempt to establish herself as a dramatic actress capable of playing less wholesome roles.
In this film she plays Judith Farrow, a London widow who works as a secretary for a high-level British diplomatic official. As The Tamarind Seed opens, Judith is vacationing in Barbados, trying to forget a doomed affair with Richard Patterson, a married RAF officer.
She meets Colonel Feodar Sverdlov, a married Russian military attache (Omar Sharif) with the Soviet embassy in London. They have a very staid and reserved courtship which isn’t consummated until very late in the film. Instead of sex, they engage in leisurely dinners and long walks on the beach, where they have philosophical conversations about Communism versus capitalism, materialism versus spirituality, etc. During one of their long conversations, Judith relates a local legend about a tamarind tree, detailing how a slave was once hanged unjustly. The slave cursed the tree, and after his death, the tree began to grow deformed seeds in the shape of a man’s head. Judith carries one around with her as a reminder of ultimate justice.
Sverdlov urges Judith to continue seeing him in London, which she knows could get her into trouble with the British government. But Sverdlov persists and she does see him in London. The British and Soviet intelligence services both know about their relationship, and spy on them. Sverdlov, who is married to a top Party official’s daughter, tells his superiors that he’s only interested in Judith because he’s trying to get information out of her.
A subplot intertwines with the story of Judith and Sverdlove. This is the story of Fergus and Margaret Stephenson, a London power couple with a toxic marriage (played by Dan O’Herlihy and Sylvia Sims). Fergus is a senior diplomat with his eye on an ambassadorship; he also happens to be deep in the closet. Margaret is the consummate diplomatic spouse, who sees Fergus as a career and not a husband. She is also friends with the Pattersons, the husband of whom had the affair with Judith.
Other important characters include Loder (Anthony Quayle), an intelligence chief, and a top spy, Macleod (Bryan Marshall), who is having an on-off affair with Mrs. Stephenson. Aside from keeping tabs on Judith and Sverdlov, Loder is focused on finding a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of the British government — a mole who is, unbeknownst to Loder, none other than his good friend Fergus Stephenson.
This complicated stew of illicit affairs and intrigue takes a long time to heat up, and some viewers may lose patience. When the plot finally starts to boil, Sverdlov decides to defect to the West, and the Stephensons tip off Russian intelligence. The ending, which takes Judith and Sverdlov back to Barbados, is pretty predictable.
Although the pacing and the ending are flaws, they’re balanced by good if unexciting acting, a brilliant score from John Barry, and cinematography provided by the legendary Freddie Young, the triple Oscar-winner who shot Lawrence of Arabia. A particular acting stand-out is Sylvia Sims as Margaret Stephenson, especially in the controlled fury she exhibits when she confronts Fergus after discovering that he’s the Soviet mole. Sharif is his usual suave and charming self; Andrews turns in a low-key but decent performance, and looks great in an orange bikini.
This film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime U.S, free to Prime members. Unfortunately, it’s in a terrible ratio, making the actors look like the elongated subjects of a painting by El Greco. I give it a 6.5/10, which is a little bit higher than the IMdB audience rating of 6.4.