TV: London Spy

June 12, 2017

The conspiracy thriller lives on in London Spy, a solid British miniseries that transcends its hopelessly lukewarm title. Created and scripted by spy novelist Tom Rob Smith, it’s a deliberate, intriguing slow-build of contemporary espionage that benefits from a killer premise, terrific acting, and a strong emotional core.

Danny Holt (Ben Whishaw) is a hard-partying loner in London and a hopeless romantic. After a rough night, Danny has a chance encounter with an attractive jogger named Alex (Edward Holcroft), who briefly elicits a heartfelt show of concern before jogging off into the morning. Detecting a spark of interest, Danny labors to encounter Alex again, and when his efforts pay off the two strike up a gentle friendship that soon escalates into romance. Danny feels he’s found the love of his lifeā€”but then one day, Alex vanishes. Danny’s investigation into the disappearance ensnares him in a perilous worldwide conspiracy, forcing him to hack through a tangled skein of lies to get to what may well be the ultimate truth.

Unfolding in a leisurely, incremental manner, London Spy will likely repel impatient viewers, but to me it felt perfectly clocked, its weighty build-up making every timely reveal and emotional payoff feel that much more earned. The plot is intricate and slickly executed, and the MacGuffin driving it may be the ultimate conspiracy thriller premise for the post-truth era. But while its spy-genre street cred is impeccable, London Spy really goes the extra mile in its human story. The Danny-Alex romance is one area where the careful, patient storytelling pays off, as is Danny’s friendship with an older government official named Scottie (Jim Broadbent) with whom he shares a storied history. It’s a rare spy story where cynicism, while absolutely warranted, does not entirely win the day over hope and love. I do wish it had labored for a more relevant and evocative title, and a crucial line delivery in the final scene struck me as tonally odd and jarringly out of character. But overall, this is a well constructed spy mystery with heart, its high stakes both geopolitical and emotional.