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TV review: Retired Doctor operates deftly in 'Spies of Warsaw'

Starring David Tennant, BBC America's two-part series follows Tennant's French aristocrat through covert operations as Hitler's power grows before World War II.

April 03, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • David Tennant stars in BBC America's "Spies of Warsaw."
David Tennant stars in BBC America's "Spies of Warsaw." (Robert Palka / Fresh Pictures )

It's a big week on BBC America for fans of "Doctor Who." Saturday brought the return of the series itself and Wednesday sees David Tennant, its no-longer-employed-there 10th Doctor, starring in the prewar romantic thriller "Spies of Warsaw."

Burn Gorman of the "Who" spinoff "Torchwood" is in it, too, for incidental frisson.

Adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais from Alan Furst's 2008 novel of nearly the same name, it features Tennant as Jean-Francois Mercier — you can tell he's French by the English accent — a World War I hero and aristocrat diplomatically posted to Poland but engaged in a variety of undercover activities. It is 1937, with Joseph Stalin to the east and Adolf Hitler to the west — but especially there is Hitler to the west.

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Tennant, beanpole skinny and straight-spined, dons a variety of ensembles and disguises, from patrician to prole, in pursuit of his intertwining, information-gathering goals. He wears many hats here, literally. He also takes his shirt off, which I am pretty sure he was never required to do in "Doctor Who," although he did once fight an alien in his pajamas.

As is traditional, the hero's independence of mind and action vexes his superiors. When his boss (Gorman) tells him curtly, "Try to remember, Colonel, that your function here is covert, which means we want to hear as little as possible about what you get up to," it's easy enough to hear "007" where "Colonel" is said.

Both cold-blooded and kind-hearted, Mercier is the sort of secret agent who will go the extra, extra-hard mile to help those he has persuaded or tricked into helping him, and whom his superiors would just as soon abandon when they have exhausted their use. He'll kill you if he must but spare you if he can — and if that is all sounding a bit like the Doctor to you, it is to me too.

But apart from some of his native acting moves (exhaling before a line to signal disquiet, breaking a line with a swallow as if to say, "I don't want to finish this sentence, but I'm afraid I have to"), it's a different sort of performance altogether, with a more guarded energy.

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Although some things happen a little too fast — he falls in love with League of Nations lawyer Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery) so quickly that even she thinks he's mad, wedging himself in between her and her hairy, Russian, frustrated-firebrand, writer-in-exile boyfriend (Piotr Baumann) — it is withal a leisurely sort of thriller, clocking in at around three hours, spread over two episodes. (The series concludes the following Wednesday.)

Some will certainly call it dull, and at times the narrative, which moves around the Continent, from Warsaw to Paris to London to Berlin, and selected points in between, can seem almost haphazard. It is also a little short on humor, especially compared with similar sorts of films from the time in which "Spies of Warsaw" is set, like Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes," from 1938, whose poster promised "Comedy! Chills! Chuckles!," or its quasi-sequel, Carol Reed's 1940 "Night Train to Munich" ("Laughs! Excitement! Thrills!").

The situation isn't helped by a score given over to large tracts of wrong-for-the-period "film noir" jazz, whose yearning-trumpet passages drag the film further down into melancholy.

Yet I found its lowered temperature agreeable. The action when it comes is the likely kind: punching, running, shooting, bonking on the head. And director Coky Giedroyc leaves enough dramatic headroom that when forces draw together toward the end, with one last frontier to cross, he can deliver what feels like pulp-fiction thrills without getting loud or fancy.


'Spies of Warsaw'

Where: BBC America

When: 6 and 9 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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