London Spy

January 19, 2016


If you like TV shows to wine and dine you- then thoroughly fuck you over, well then you’re in luck. London Spy is just such a program. I urge you to stop reading this review immediately, as the less you know about the sad, sweet and utterly depraved nature of this gripping drama, the more powerful its climax.

I’ll plough on, as I’m paid by the word. But consider this your fair warning.

Against the cold, damp grey of London sunrise, a distressed club kid and his emotional antonym meet by chance. Through loaded eye contact and genuine concern, feelings are transmitted. Feelings that let loose a flow-slide of exhilaration, expectation, apprehension and self-doubt in Ben Wishaw’s Danny. Unable to shake what’s awoken in him, he puts himself back in Alex’s (Edward Holcroft) path. “Sometimes you have to take a chance,” he says, “otherwise, how do you know.”

His hope, his pureness of feeling, his damaged, doe-eyed stares loosen Alex’s stunted, yearning gauze and the sense of feeling returning to numbed souls is beautifully captured in both performances, and in Tom Rob-Smith Pinteresque script.

The awkward affection; the rush of candor, the slow, wary retreat of a defeatist shell, not one word is wasted here, yet two lifetimes of hurt ebb and flow in the subtle inflections of the actors

Anyone whose ever made peace with love or companionship not being on the cards for them will be crushed by the weight of the questions asked. The cathartic rush of breaking ones own confidence makes London Spy the most heart-rending, human portrayals I’ve seem of the actual act of falling in love. Those loaded, lonely looks; the enormity of just taking someone by the hand; the lies that we convince ourselves of, and the acceptance that strips them away.

And in the last quarter, the story pivots so perversely that the viewers are left as stunned, desolate and determined to find a resolution as the characters themselves.

The only problem I have with London Spy’s first episode is the title of the series (although I could also do without the ‘something’s up’ music). Obviously somebody isn’t all they claim to be here, but rather than letting us figure this out by the clues dropped -none to subtly, throughout the episode, it’s telegraphed in the bloody title.

Yet the parallel between an inexperienced and overly cautious lover letting down his guard, with that of a spy on constant alert, is remarkably well done. The caution, self-preservation, the painful mulling of every word spoken or heard, London Spy is a devastating exploration of the insurmountable act of trust and the damage it can do.

The weary cycle the personality gets stuck on, the mocking snail trail of past experience (or lack there of), these things are as applicable to the aging club-kid as they are to the granite-faced financier. Both seem encased in a pillar of salt, as with Lott’s wife, from all their looking back.

And as the plot moves forward, shunting sad-eyed romance for skin-dimpling thriller, the warped revelations are straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Flemish director Jakob Verbruggen, who previously helmed the exquisite The Fall, is behind the lens here, bathing London in streetlights, dark nights and soaking wet morns. It’s the most intense use of light on British TV since Academy-Award winner Tom Hooper ploughed his trough in the field..

And while we’re only one episode in to a five episode run, Whishaw’s turn- as a man struggling to keep up with life, is already the best of his career. His tortured innocence, his frantic hope, his keen receptiveness, they lead him to pluck every feather of pretence that these men cushion themselves with, to leave them thoroughly naked and exposed to their audience. We’re not just gripped by what happens next, but invested, utterly in their fates.

In a world where writers push characters from one revelation to the next, as if engaged in an attempt to break the narrative sound barrier, it’s wonderful to be exposed to a show that takes it’s time with the creation of a connection. We feel it to, and it enriches our engagement with all other levels of the plot.

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