I’ve often wondered how Alan Furst’s work would translate to the screen. The 2013 BBC miniseries Spies of Warsaw finally supplies an answer: not bad, not bad at all. If that’s a less-than-emphatic reaction, perhaps it’s unfairly so: the series is attractive, well performed, richly produced, and full of intrigue. I enjoyed it, but I suspect it will be a trickier sell to those less familiar with the specific rhythms of Furst’s work.
David Tennant stars as Jean-Francois Mercier, a military attache in Warsaw who is also secretly an agent of French intelligence. In 1937, Mercier’s operations not only begin to reveal evidence of Germany’s imminent war ambitions, but also its specific strategies, which he dutifully reports back to a stodgy military establishment that’s reluctant to heed his warnings. Mercier’s success in the field paints a target on him, but despite some close shaves, he continues to risk his life in Poland, primarily due to his love for a young United Nations lawyer named Anna Szarbek (Janet Montgomery).
The miniseries paints a vivid historical picture, and that — a primary characteristic of Furst’s work — is perhaps its chief strength: realistically embedding fictional episodes into the grim realities of the era. The production is impeccable, although I almost found it too bright and shiny? As a Furst fanatic, I always envisioned his worlds with a murkier pallette. Nonetheless it’s attractive, well written, and full of capable performances.
Something is missing, though. Interior monologue, perhaps? A hallmark of Furst’s protagonists is how conflicted they are about intelligence work. Tennant does a fine job with the material, but seems less nuanced than the Mercier of the novel, more one-note. Perhaps that’s simply a matter of script expedience, but we also lose something not being able to see into his head. Beyond that, the miniseries build-up doesn’t pay off the same way. Furst’s novels are tales of survival as much as anything else, and their strict adherence to historical accuracy often give them an unconventional shape. The author’s lyrical turns of phrase can sell all manner of non-Hollywood endings, but the miniseries struggles to do so with the same finesse.
As an attempt, though, it’s an admirable one, quite watchable. While it deviates from the source material, over-emphasizing the romance, and perhaps even lifting its final set piece mission from another Furst novel entirely, these structural liberties do accumulate into a coherent vision of the place and time. An imperfect adaptation, but an earnest and worthy one.