Tag Archives: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC 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 Endwhich 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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’m normally not much into cold war era stuff; between the bleakness of the whole Soviet situation and the incredibly bad fashion choices, I’m just not interested.  I am not someone who thinks the idea of espionage is cool or glamorous.  Okay, I enjoyed the first Bourne movie, but that’s about it. I loathe James Bond. I find any of the spy movies that treats it as fun or fabulous or anything other than dreadful to be totally moronic.  And I only liked the first Bourne movie, since the girl snuffs it about 10 minutes into the second.

This movie though, is not a regular spy movie. It does not treat espionage as glamorous, it does not trade in heart-throbs drinking martinis.  It is a lot closer to what I imagine MI-6 or even the CIA would have been like in the sixties and seventies. Which is not to say that I really enjoyed spending time in the world of the film.  But it does allow me to take the movie seriously, which I usually can’t do with anything relating to spies.

This was a movie I had to see from the first moment I heard about it, despite my reluctance to see spy films.  There would never be a movie with this cast that I wouldn’t go see.  It stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt (aka Mr. Ollivander), Benedict Cumberbatch, and also has Tom Hardy and Toby Jones (most recently he appeared in Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries. He was the little bloke with the mean Irish wife.)

So you know the acting is going to be good. The film is about a semi-retired intelligence officer (Oldman) who has to conduct a secret investigation to find the mole within MI-6.  It’s a classic, trust-no-one, sort of movie where you spend half your time wondering if you are being tricked and Oldman is the mole.

The film is very interesting in its pace and its slow unraveling of realization and of facts.  It takes a long time to figure out what’s going on, and it can take some patience to remain focused throughout.  In that way, it sort of mirrors a real investigation–there are moments of insight and action, and moments of tedium and lack of progress.  Also, the filmmakers have chosen to portray a ’60s-’70s Britain that is just as dull visually as you can expect it to have been in real life.  This is not the bright colors and ludicrous outfits of Mad Men.  This is bleak old furniture from the ’50s, the sort of government-sponsored buildings that all look like elementary schools or hospitals, and the tedious environment of gray file cabinets and early electronics yellowed with cigarette smoke.  The very un-visually appealing nature of the movie is sort of visually appealing in its own way.  It adds verisimilitude, I guess. Or maybe I’m projecting my own values onto it.  I think that espionage, that living a life of lies and ambiguity would be necessarily bleak and awful, so I see the bleakness of the film as reflecting that truth.

At any rate, it’s a quiet, subtle film and in that way the exact opposite of Bond’s bright colors, invisible cars, jumping out of planes, etc.  There are no combat scenes.  The violence is realistic and horrifying.  We mostly see the aftermath.

The overwhelming impression (I got) of the film is one where this is not a life you would particularly want.  There are a few characters who come out of the action unscathed, but the majority of them are seriously fucked over by their time doing intelligence work. And, not to provide any concrete spoilers, a few died by the end.

It wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed being inside of, as I said.  But I think the subject it covered was covered really well, accurately, believably. It didn’t glorify or glamorize any of the dirty business of espionage, but it also gave me a sort of thrill to be able to figure things out along the way.  Because of the way it’s structured, you can discover little clues and figure things out from bits of information dropped in your lap casually 40 minutes earlier.  Like a scavenger hunt. There was some sort of accompanying pleasure to do with picking up the pieces. But, overall, it wasn’t a pleasant film to watch.

The acting was brilliant, though quite understated and no one was given enough time or lines to really and truly shine. The only characters with a lot of screen time were Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Gary Oldman’s.  Gary was playing a truly seasoned spy, and as such I think he downplayed his emotions quite a bit.  His character doesn’t reveal much of anything, doesn’t react to much of anything.  The sense I got from him was just of one big brain processing all possible information coming his way. Always thinking. Benedict’s character is younger (obviously) and less experienced, so I think it’s right that his character is a bit more ruffled by everything that’s going on.  He does a really great job, though I must say he is a terribly ugly crier!  Everyone else was only on film for moments here and there, so it was hard to really see them.  I wonder if maybe they were in the movie longer than I think they were, and this just isn’t the sort of movie that lends itself to much emotion.  Not to be stereotypical, but there are basically no women in it. Either way, there wasn’t much there.  The only exception was Mark Strong, which wasn’t a name I recognized.  He did a brilliant job with his part, though there was a part with a bird that I really disliked.

All in all, I think it’s worth watching, but don’t expect an action movie, don’t watch it if you’re tired, or if you like to think of the spy life as something out of Alias.  It’s the sort of movie you have to be in the mood for.