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Monday, April 22, 2013

Spies of Warsaw Not So Sneaky

Article first published as Spies of Warsaw Not So Sneaky on TheTVKing.

BBC America recently presented the four part miniseries Spies of Warsaw, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. David Tennant (Doctor Who) stars in this tale of intrigue and romance in Europe during the late 1930s, as the build up to World War II rages on. Unfortunately, it is dreadfully dull.

I was really looking forward to Spies of Warsaw. Tennant is "my Doctor," as the saying goes, and I couldn't wait to see the project he picked next. Yet, tied down by a rote, slow-moving plot and a restrained character, he lacks the spark and draw from his much more famous role. Tennant is still fantastic, and I won't complain about his acting, but he feels trapped in the part, and cannot give it the liveliness it needs to salvage the piece. Where is the humor he is oh-so-good at? Even in a drama, that should be allowed to shine through, at least a bit.

He isn't alone. Janet Montgomery (Made in Jersey, Black Swan), who plays Anna, the romantic interest for Tennant's Colonel Mercier, gives quite a tame performance. Their romance lacks the steam and passion one would expect in such a tale. As with Tennant, I don't blame Montgomery, but rather the lackluster material she has been given to work with. Why does Anna barely fight her attraction to Mercier before falling into bed? Who knows? And are we supposed to care?

Perhaps I'm just not the target audience for this piece. Many love a good, slow broil in their British period pieces, and Spies of Warsaw doesn't feel drastically different from other imported miniseries I have viewed from previous decades. The clothing and sets are well produced, and the team seems to get the details right, as near as I can tell. There may be something there for fans of, say, The Far Pavilion, which, unlike this, I rather enjoyed. But Spies doesn't feel modern or well-paced, drug down by a sluggish story in which not a lot happens. I thought we were past that era.

What's worse is that Spies of Warsaw teases the viewer. It ramps up steadily throughout the four hours (OK, actually closer to three sans commercials, though it feels like four), almost as if building to a climatic pay off that will be worth the slog. But it never materializes, and I was left feeling disappointed, as if I had wasted my time. The tension never fully appears, nor is there major resolution. Even Mercier's disapproving boss, Jourdain (Burn Gorman, Tochwood), lacks enough bite to create real conflict.

I also feel like Spies of Warsaw suffers from a limited vision or budget. We get glimpses of the larger world, at parties, or in characters who inhabit some role much bigger. But none of it is explored or shown. So many scenes feel like there should be more going on around them, or more people visible in the surrounding areas, and yet are reigned in.

Similarly, we are told of a nuanced world of grey, in which people inhabit the shadows and make difficult decisions about complex issues. Yet again, we never see this. Nothing seems all that complicated. Colonel Mercier is the hero, and that is all he remains. Hitler and the Nazis are the bad guys, and they will be defeated.

This tone, in both the plot structure and visual elements, combine to make for something not all that impressive. I really wanted to like Spies of Warsaw. Unfortunately, I never found an accessible entry that made that possible.

Spies of Warsaw is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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