BBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January. The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.
I can’t say I loved it, to be honest. I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.
First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter. Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms. But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.
Second, the format left something to be desired. This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words. I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts. I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours. And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second. I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that. I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone. Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life. The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.
I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s End, which was on HBO a few months ago. Each dealt with the lead-up to war. Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming. Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe. Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes. Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience. And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me. I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening. I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character. Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable. It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.
I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War. Note to self.
David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good. The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really. I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times. It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.
I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence. Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed. When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense. From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction. Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene. It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were. When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one. She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on. I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be. After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it. Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.
To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.
Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado. I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo. On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie. And I followed those just fine. I think they were just better. Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films. Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension. And tension is everything. Have you seen Strangers on a Train? Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world. This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.
They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries. Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east. France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest. Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly. The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.
I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series). There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot. It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing. It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good). But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.
Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman. I kept forgetting Mercier was French. Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign. I doubt it bothered Brits. Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries. Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent. Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:
There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.
I think my brain just glazed over. Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.