The Spies Of Warsaw

The Spies Of Warsaw debuts tonight on BBC America at 9 p.m. Eastern.

You can’t go wrong with spies. As television and film professions go, spy towers over even perennial favorites like cop and doctor in terms of its dramatic potential. And with espionage on television particularly hot at the moment (see Homeland, The Americans) it’s no surprise BBC America has taken the bait with The Spies Of Warsaw, a miniseries (well, really just a long TV movie split into two pieces) about espionage in the titular city, and a few other European locations, during the build up to World War II.

Based on Alan Furst’s novel of the same name, The Spies of Warsaw stars David Tennant as Jean-Francois Mercier, the French military attaché to Poland. In this role, he goes to a lot of parties, seduces the occasional woman, and sneaks across the border to get a look at what the Germans are up to. Actually, he does all that in the opening half hour or so of the series, which sounds like a lot to cram into that space when it’s spelled out like that, but manages to seem strangely insubstantial and unexciting, even when those Germans catch sight of him and chase him back across the border to Poland.

Things don’t exactly take off after that, either. Part of the indefatigable appeal of the spy genre is all the tension inherent in the potential of being caught. The other part is all the cool shit spies get to do—the car chases, shootouts, eluding detection in the dead of night and all the rest—at least in the movies. These spies are something of a letdown on both counts.

The tension should, by all accounts, be there, despite knowing the outcome. Since this isn’t some kind of Inglourious Basterds-style alternate history, we all know the French hero is not going to be able to avert World War II, or even convince his superiors of the Germans’ plan of attack so France doesn’t fold to the Nazis in the time it takes to make and eat a sandwich. That hasn’t stopped dozens, if not hundreds, of stories, in every medium, from milking the same territory to great effect. Here, situations that should be full of gut-wrenching tension, as when Mercier is filming German military maneuvers and is discovered by a young soldier, come across with zero intensity.

Part of that is due to some odd decisions in both editing and writing. In the aforementioned scene, Mercier and the young soldier grapple until Mercier seems to get the upper hand, grabbing the soldier’s bayonet and pushing it toward his throat. Then it just cuts away to a scene of him showing the footage he collected. To further drain the scene of any excitement, he explains to a colleague that he just tied and gagged the boy, which seems extra weird. If they cut away because they couldn't show him getting stabbed in the neck, okay, but if Mercier just overcame him and tied him up, why not show that? Other supposedly tense action scenes play out in the same stilted, bloodless way, with weird rhythms and odd editing decisions. The scenes are set up well—it’s always clear there’s supposed to be tension—but they frequently go nowhere, and even what’s shown somehow just doesn't work. It’s like looking at a photorealistic painting that somehow lacks any sense of depth.

The other issue is all that cool spy stuff is mighty thin on the ground. A big part of that is this is supposed to be a more or less historically accurate spy tale. Car chases and gunfights on top of moving trains just didn't play a big role in determining how World War II got started, unfortunately, so they’re nowhere to be found. That means the focus here is on more or less real spycraft, and real spycraft means a lot of talking. Talking to contacts about what they can tell you, blackmailing people into doing your dirty work, offering to pay off others to slip you files from the office. Some of that is interesting, especially to anyone who has an interest in the reality of what spies do as opposed to the Hollywood fantasy, but the problem here is that the show doesn't have any more of an idea of how to make that compelling and tense than it does the occasional shootouts and abductions that punctuate all that talking. You do get a sense of how a real intelligence operative pieces together what’s going on from little scraps of information and lots of intuition, which is nice. But even at its best here, it's not nearly as interesting as the depiction of that same kind of spycraft in something like Zero Dark Thirty. At its worst, it’s downright dull.

Just as dull and lifeless are the various relationships that connect the characters. There’s a love story at the center of the whole series that’s supposed to be as compelling as the espionage. That’s about how it feels, which is a problem given how lifeless the spy games are. Mercier is supposed to have a deep, lifelong friendship that was forged in the fires of the first World War with another character, but it seems like they barely know each other, coming across more as polite but disinterested coworkers than old war buddies.

There are a host of other issues as well, most of which boil down to trying to fit too much novel into too little television time. There are lots of subplots, like a suicide pact between two of the characters, that seem like they must have been important on the page but simply aren’t given enough time on screen to mean anything. They end up being nothing more than a distraction, which makes the whole thing feel overstuffed and meandering.

Despite all these issues, the show is surprisingly watchable. Tennant doesn’t bring much weight to the role of Mercier, but he’s pleasant enough to watch. The whole thing moves at a pretty decent clip, apart from a few draggy patches around the halfway mark of each episode. The costumes and sets are great for the World War II aficionados, and I’m sure at least some of these issues would be alleviated for fans of the books that know the subtext of what’s being shown on screen. At the very least, it’s a testament of sorts to how decent set design, solid acting, and general filmmaking competence can result in a watchable end product. The problem is, there’s not a lot of reason to actually watch four hours of it just for those minor pleasures.

Stray observations:

  • I’m not even a Doctor Who fan, but it was kind of hard to not see the Doctor every time Tennant was on screen. It’s not his fault, it’s just one of those defining roles, just like I’m sure I’ll see Walter White no matter who Bryan Cranston is playing in the future.
  • Man, French military dress uniforms circa World War II were really goofy looking.
  • I can accept that the dialog was in English, despite being a show about French people in Poland, because hey, fuck four hours of subtitles. But it was really odd that Tennant and his girlfriend had English accents, even though they were supposed to be French, or French born and Polish raised in her case. It was especially weird since all the English people had English accents and everyone else had exaggerated but more or less appropriate accents.

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