Based on Alan Furst’s novel of the same name, this recent BBC America miniseries, Spies of Warsaw, finds Colonel Jean Francois Mercier (David Tennant, Doctor Who) serving as a French military attaché in Warsaw sometime in 1937. There, he meets Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery, Black Swan); he falls in love with her even though he knows she’s in love with a Russian who is perhaps darker, more mysterious than the bright Frenchman. (And certainly a heavier drinker.) Mercier’s also a spy––one of many who populate the landscape of Europe in the march––Or is that glide?––toward World War II.
The miniseries––written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais––is a bit long on romance and perhaps too short on spying; it could be taut thriller that places our hero and his heart in danger but is instead a fairly predictable love story that has no real bite nor zest for its subject matter and occasionally poses as an espionage nail-biter. (Although you’ll have enough time and inclination during this to give yourself a proper mani and maybe even a pedi, as well.)
It’s a curious thing when a viewer wants to be engaged more than a script or storyline allows them to be. There’s plenty of location hopping––from Poland to Czechoslovakia, and from London to Warsaw to Berlin (or something like that), etc. and so forth. Such globetrotting is a convention of thrillers––those of the espionage variety in particular––and it’s charming when done correctly. But it happens so rapidly here that at times it’s disorienting. Perhaps some of this scenery changing is an attempt to recreate the way that borders were coming closer together during the time, but if it is, it still doesn’t work.
You might expect that a series attempting to bound from one location to another might also give us something to look at in each of those places but there’s nothing in the landscape that’s especially––or even remotely––exquisite and there’s surprisingly little snow on the ground in Warsaw during the winter. (At least it seemed like Warsaw.) Watching this, you can’t help but want something exciting to happen. Alas, what should be violent, frightening experiences come off more like casual lobs of a volleyball. (Even Mercier’s hospital stay––after what would probably be a fairly serious incident––is so short it’s almost comedic. Almost. But there’s not much in the way of humor, here.)
Mercier isn’t that much of an interesting character, although he should be. He tries to persuade others that war is coming, that the Germans are really up to something big but his suggestions fall on deaf––well, maybe disbelieving––ears. (At least that’s what seems to happen.) But we never get a real sense of the frustration a complex character might feel or that a complex, more fully realized script might allow him to feel. Instead, it’s one dimensional. We’ get cardboard cut-out characters and, as good as the acting can often be, they’re frequently capable of inspiring that most dreaded of states, boredom.
Official materials for the series tell us that Skarbek is a lawyer for the League of Nations, but mostly she looks pretty and wears a nice hat. Montgomery and Tennant are both good looking people (she especially so) but they have the chemistry of a bucket of water and a table saw. In fact, Mercier’s close friend Colonel Antoni Pakulski (Marcin Dorocinski, who gives the best performance in this turkey) more accurately portrays the rapid-fire attraction and longing most men would probably have for Skarbek. He can’t fall in love with her and in a way that’s too bad. At least something exciting might have happened, if he could.
There are some daft last-minute grasps for dramatic tension––a nearly missed train, the possibility of one friend turning his back on another and some European hillbillies who want to derail a mission to get out of Poland. And that actually almost works but by that late in the game, after you’ve watched something like three hours of these characters fumbling their way through the plot, all you can do is hope that it will come to a quick and merciful––and in this case, almost goofy––end.
It does. And not a moment too soon.
Bonus features include interviews with writers Clement and Frenais as well as Tennant.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Short Ends and Leader
"Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a darkly funny and philosophical cyberpunk locked-room thriller that tangles with the greatest sci-fi puzzle: What does it mean to be human?READ the article