Spies Of Warsaw part 1 review

David Tennant stars in BBC Four two-parter Spies Of Warsaw, adapted from Alan Furst's 2008 novel...

This review contains spoilers.

Title-wise, Spies of Warsaw doesn’t mess about. No figurative Parade’s End or The Crimson Petal and the White evasion for this BBC period adaptation; it’s a story about spies, in Warsaw. Specifically, it’s a story about a French spy – David Tennant’s Jean-François Mercier – in 1937 Warsaw, so is packed with European interbellum angst and dramatic irony of the ‘Bah! Germany won’t attack France through Belgium!’ sort.

Part one sees Col. Mercier, a widowed French noble turned spy, posing as attaché to the Embassy while attempting to uncover German invasion plans. When he’s not burrowing under enemy barbed wire or getting in punch-ups with would-be kidnappers, Mercier spends his time exuding twentieth century ennui at expensive drinks parties and making louche statements about life being too short to drink bad wine.

Supporting Mercier are driver/minder Marek – a kind of Polish Vinnie Jones played by Miroslaw Zbrojewicz, former brother-in-arms Pakulski (Marcin Dorocinski), dry, uptight boss Jourdain (Torchwood’s Burn Gorman), and Anna (Janet Montgomery), the beautiful French lawyer of Polish extraction whose affair with the Colonel threatens his duplicitous profession.

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This two-part BBC Four drama comes adapted from Alan Furst’s 2008 novel by TV veterans Clement and La Frenais (Porridge, The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen Pet…), and directed by Silent Witness and The Hour’s Coky Giedroyc. Considering the calibre of Spies of Warsaw’s ingredients (the New York Times review praises Furst’s novel as a sophisticated thriller of the highest order) the result is something of an uneven bake.

Mercier and Anna’s love affair, no doubt intended to be fraught with ‘can they trust one another?’ anxiety, comes across as oddly bloodless. A quick bunk-up on the overnight to Belgrade and hey presto, all tension, sexual or otherwise, is excised from the pair. Tennant’s slow and serious delivery misses his usual vigour, and love him as I do, it’s difficult to believe that slender frame would be much cop in a street fight with a pair of beefy Nazis.

The dialogue, much praised in Furst’s novel, often telegraphs theme too explicitly. In place of creating an actual sense of menace and paranoia, the spies are reduced to delivering lines like, “It was easier when we were simply soldiers, black and white. Now everything is grey, shadows, secrets.” We’ll have to take your word for it.

Other contrivances also detract from the desired atmosphere and lurch towards a sense of camp: a Blofeld-style Gestapo interrogator strokes a purring cat before ordering a woman’s execution, and most of the Brits – Tennant excluded – are burdened with ‘Allo ‘Allo-style Russian and German twangs.

Even the costume – while every bit as handsome as the settings – has a fashion show feel, as if Tennant is more poseable action figure than character. There’s towel-wearing Tennant (merci M. Mercier), military finery Tennant, flat cap rough-and-ready Tennant, silk dressing-gown Tennant, horse-riding Tennant, camouflage Tennant, and svelte-suited Tennant with boyishly tousled hair… 

I don’t mean to trash it, Spies of Warsaw deserves nothing of the sort. It’s good-looking, reliably done, and spy drama fans should find it a robust enough example of the genre. Judging by the first ninety minutes though, it seems unlikely to become a crossover hit. 

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