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BBC America’s London Spy is one of those miniseries that only remotely relates to what you initially think it might be. For starters, yes, it’s a spy story — but almost reluctantly. It’s a kind of love story, really, or many kinds of love stories — including ones where love has either been snatched away or botched entirely. Ultimately, if there’s a pressing need to know about intent, London Spy has a moral or seven to be had about secrets and lies. You will be left thinking, which is what a good spy story achieves. Almost every spy story has that, but few have what comes before it.
This five-part BBC America series is filled with excellent performances — Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling are standouts — and it wallows in that genre almost completely missing from American television these days, save for SundanceTV’s Rectify, and that’s the meditative slow TV movement.
Air date: Jan 21, 2016
Beautifully and seductively shot by director Jakob Verbruggen (The Fall, The Bridge), London Spy is one of those rare series (like Rectify) that is perfectly willing to sit still while two people talk — or rather, don’t — about difficult topics. The emotion comes from what’s not said, pictures of how they’re thinking about replying or how they drift off in sadness or fritter around the edges of some painful memory for a while before they actually answer. It should come as no surprise, then, that Verbruggen also likes to shoot lengthy scenes — swimming underwater, smoking pensively at a windowsill, overhead shots of two lovers walking lengthy expanses of countryside.
But here’s the thing: It all works, as counterintuitive to a spy story as it might seem. Mostly because novelist Tom Rob Smith (Child 44) came up with a dandy-enough spy-level hook revealed in the latter episodes that allows him to focus on the relationship between Danny (Whishaw) and Alex (Edward Holcroft) first and foremost. The two are polar opposites. They meet by accident when scraggy Danny, up all night at a club, dehydrated and strung out — as he’s been most of his adult life — is barely functioning one cold morning after dancing and/or sedating himself from the world all night. Alex, fit and Adonis-like, is out running before most others are awake.
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Credit Smith for making this essential meeting both a perfect chance encounter that strikes within Danny some long-forgotten notion of love at first sight and also the perfect dubious — in retrospect — “setup” encounter that fuels many spy stories. Much of London Spy makes you wonder which version is correct — in fact, hinges on that rarest and most foreign of rainbows-and-unicorns moment Danny has ever felt in his life (thus always imploring his more natural and cynical side to doubt it) and the heart-crushing other option that what he experiences with Alex is, in fact, amazingly true and real.
London Spy is a love story, then, between Danny and Alex, first and foremost — one of the most intimate and nuanced of gay love stories put on TV in some time.
Smith’s precision in this arena is at the heart of what makes London Spy so good. There is a brief standoff between Whishaw’s character and Rampling’s mysterious character that discusses sexual intricacies while outing a lie that might be the most honest and fantastic five minutes you’ll see onscreen all season.
Danny’s sexual history is long and sometimes sordid — the latter part one he deeply regrets, but one he was pulled from and helped out of by his much-older former partner and now-confidant, Scottie (Broadbent).
Alex, on the other hand, was a genius savant growing up (especially with numbers) but has no ability to navigate intimacy — he’s not out when he meets Danny and has dubious sexual experience. All of this gets muddied — and not in the unclear sense, but in the dirty sense — as London Spy shifts dramatically in the early going, and Danny’s more sordid past acts as a list of morally perceived crimes against his personal character. Smith’s ability to make London Spy both about sexuality/sexual choice and also a broader spy story keeps it working on two fronts.
It’s even deeper than that, as secrets mix with shame throughout. As mentioned above, the getting there is more contemplative than traditionally conspiratorial in a spy-story sense. It’s a languid, beautiful contemplation of lies before it’s any kind of pulse-pounder about spies.
Not all of it works, however. There are constructs that strain belief. There is convenience in how fast damage (and damage control) happens.
That said, and even though it can be (purposefully) slow going, London Spy is particularly effective at making each hourlong installment different from the next. When it feels like a love story, it then becomes an oddly structured hour where you’re sure something weird will happen, then morphs the next hour into a traditional spy story and in the next hour into something about wealth and family secrets and so on. Even in its slowness, there are impressive feints and dodges.
Whatever your ultimate takeaway becomes when all is revealed, like Rectify and other slow TV stalwarts of the recent American-television past, this British import proves that the real joy of the journey is in getting there, not what’s revealed when you arrive.
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