the early 1930’s, Poland was in a tight spot geographically. It was sandwiched between Germany and the
Soviet Union. We know what that will
mean come 1939. A French military attaché
also has a pretty good idea, but his superiors are not so keen to hear it in Spies of Warsaw (promo here), a two-night miniseries based on Alan
Furst’s novel, premiering this Wednesday on BBC America.
Mercier saw more than enough combat in World War I. Initially, the decorated aristocrat was not
enthusiastic about his posting to the Warsaw embassy. However, as the Polish people start to grow
on him, he becomes increasingly concerned about their vulnerability to foreign invasion. Indeed, he fully understands the implications
for France should Poland fall. Warsaw
has also become considerably more charming for Mercier after the arrival of
Anna Skarbek, a sophisticated employee of the League of Nations. Frustratingly though, she is determined to
remain faithful to her lover, Maxim Mostov, a boozy Russian journalist exiled
by the Bolsheviks.
the first installment of Spies is a
bit slow out of the blocks, it nicely sets the scene and establishes the
geopolitical context. The cloak-and-daggering
that eventually takes center-stage is fascinating fact-based stuff, involving
the oft-overlooked leftwing of the National Socialist Party (a vestige of its
trade unionist roots) and the German upper-class’s resentment of the Nazis,
mostly for being uncouth and reaching above their proper stations.
is also rather clear-headed when it comes to appraising the Communists. In fact, he agrees to facilitate the
defection of a pair of his Soviet counterparts.
As a bargaining chip, they offer clues to the identity of a former NKVD
mole highly placed in the German government, who became inactive when his
handler was purged. Yet, Mercier’s
ultimate mission, inspired by a true historical operation, will be revealed
late in the third act.
Spies might have been
condensed into feature length, but the extra time allows it to more fully
explore the details (we) espionage junkies so enjoy. Even though it presents Warsaw as a city rife
with spycraft and skullduggery, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais’s tele-adaptation
is clearly sympathetic to the Polish people.
Prominent Polish actor Marcin Dorociński even has a major supporting
role, nearly stealing the show as Mercier’s old wartime colleague, Antoni
Pakulski, now serving in the Warsaw constabulary with vaguely defined
Unlike his gritty turns in Rose
and Manhunt, Dorociński has a smooth
Errol Flynn-ish thing going on that works so well he could easily carry a
course, to BBC America and most of its viewers, the star of Spies is unquestionably David Tennant,
the tenth Doctor Who. As Mercier, he
supposedly cuts quite the dashing figure.
Really? If you say so. Still, he projects a sense of intelligence and
a distinct impatience with bureaucracy, both of which are more important for
his character’s super-spy credibility.
Veteran British television director Coky
Giedroyc (whose credits notably include The Hour) maintains an appropriately noir mood, emphasizing atmosphere and
intrigue more than action. It might seem
hard to believe one of the year’s smartest miniseries with a pronounced respect
for freedom and a healthy skepticism of ideology would feature a French blue
blood and a League of Nations do-gooder as its primary POV characters, but here
it is. Highly recommended for fans of cerebral
spy fiction in the Le Carré tradition, Spies
of Warsaw begins this Wednesday (4/3) and concludes the following week
(4/10) on BBC America.
Labels: Alan Furst, BBC America, David Tennant, Marcin Dorocinski