Reviews

'Spies of Warsaw': A Thriller Without the Thrill

A romance thinly disguised an espionage thriller, Spies of Warsawplaces viewers at an odd, cold distance.


Spies of Warsaw

Distributor: BBC Home Entertainment
Cast: David Tennant, Janet Montgomery
UK release date: 2013-01-21
US release date: 2013-04-16
Website
Amazon

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.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image