Spies of Warsaw DVD Review: A Rare Misstep for the BBC

A distinctly average tale of espionage.
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At their best, spy films incorporate espionage, the old double-cross, corruption, opportunities for incredible rewards, and cold-blooded murder at every turn. The James Bond franchise is the gold standard, but they are really a genre unto themselves. The Bond movies do illustrate the point that the British have proven to be masters of the form however. Besides Bond, the Brits have produced quite a number of excellent spy/espionage flicks over the years as well.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I watched the three-hour, two-part  miniseries Spies of Warsaw (2013), which has just been released to DVD from BBC Home Entertainment.  Although I have not read the 2008 novel by Alan Furst, the premise sounded intriguing. It is set in 1937, and Hitler’s Germany is gearing up for war. We follow a “military attache” (spy) by the name of Jean-Francois Mercier (David Tennant) who is assigned to figure out exactly what is going on.

The book has received high praise, and I probably should have read it before watching the miniseries. I say this because it appears that Mercier’s only job is to confirm that Germany is indeed building up its arsenal. That is pretty obvious. Still, he travels to numerous locations, meeting all sorts of fascinating characters. Mercier’s encounters with Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery) are the most significant, but this is because she is cheating on her journalist boyfriend Max (Piotr Baumann) with Mercier.

Everything about the program is dark and foreboding, and one is continually expecting the worst. The problem is, nothing much happens at all. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found it to be dreadfully slow. The real mystery here is in how could a story with so much promise be so boring?

I had anticipated high-level intrigue, action, maybe even a femme fatale or two. Part of the frustration is that the story often threatens to go that way, but never really does. I was hoping that the cliffhanger at the end of Part One would kick things into high gear, but even that was a disappointment. Mercier goes to the grave of The Countess Olga Musser (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen). He hears a shot, and runs to investigate, where is grabbed by a group of comic-book perfect evil Germans. Mercier is thrown into the back of a car, which takes off for parts unknown.

I am not going to spoil how the situation is resolved, but if anything, the second half of Spies of Warsaw was even less engaging than the first. It is not that the minseries is terrible, but it is disappointing. On the positive side, there are some great locations shots. These include scenes in Poland, Paris, London, and Berlin. Unfortunately, the endless darkness obscures the full potential these locations might have offered.

Actually, everything is grey - “shades of grey” as one of Mercier’s friends says at one point. “Grey” is my impression of the whole project. Not brilliant, and not horrible, just average. There is one bonus feature, “David Tennant on Spies of Warsaw” included on the DVD. In it we get the actor’s thoughts on the movie and the shoot.  It is a 10-minute piece and relatively interesting for fans.

In retrospect, my expectations for Spies of Warsaw were clearly too high. I am a huge fan of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and this is a rare misstep. It might be worthwhile to watch the show again, to see if there were subtleties that I missed, but I doubt it. For now, all I can say is that Spies of Warsaw is a surprisingly weak effort from the generally excellent BBC.

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