London Spy (2015)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 22, 2016 @

London Spy is a withering trip through the murk of grief, claustrophobia, and betrayal. It's a challenging odyssey through luminous darkness.

London Spy is a 5-part work that first appeared on BBC-TV and then on BBC America. It's not an easy viewing experience. It demands a lot from its viewer. Moving at an unusually slow pace, it is almost listless at times. It slyly substitutes psychological effects for the expected norm of special effects. Conversation replaces action.

London Spy functions on multiple levels. It's a tale of gay lovers, broken families, stark espionage, and dire consequences. Danny (Ben Whishaw) is a promiscuous, dissolute hedonist who - the morning after a binge - collapses. A jogger, Alex (Edward Holcroft), comes to see if he's all right.

When they look into each other's eyes, they instantly make a connection. Alex is cool, but uptight, taciturn, and wary. He appears to be an investment banker, while Danny is simply a worker in a warehouse. Their chance encounter evolves into an emotional and physical relationship.

One day Alex disappears. Danny sets out to find him, with macabre results. It turns out that Alex was a spy. Danny is committed to finding out why he disappeared and what happened to him.

In his na‹ve quest, Danny is protected by an old friend - a former lover Scottie (Jim Broadbent). Scottie is wise but damaged. His homosexuality has trapped him in his government work. His career has been ruined. But he still has contacts and some influence.

Scottie tells Danny, "I would like to finish this particular adventure with you... if you'll let me." Danny needs his help but begins to realize he can't fully trust anyone.

Their fitful quest leads them to further knowledge about Alex - and his ominous family, dominated by Alex's mother Frances (Charlotte Rampling).

But even she has been ruled by MI6. Its noxious power is omniscient. How can Danny survive?

London Spy is a work of shadows not explosions. The two deaths are not explicitly shown. Language prevails.

Writer/producer Tom Rob Smith and leading actor Ben Whishaw are both gay, which probably adds credibility. But gay or not, they are artful. So too are Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. [To show how much the contemporary world intrudes on sanity, there are websites where you can vote whether you think Broadbent actually is gay or not.]

The writing in London Spy makes the writing in an American TV show such as Suits embarrassingly mediocre. Suits' use of language is puerile nonsense, while the language in London Spy is deft and engaging.

It also reveals character and invites interpretation. Frances says to Danny, "There's always something of the mystic about you. Fortune-teller. Soothsayer." She then follows this with the great line, "A person who knows nothing but sees everything." Danny is intuitive.

London Spy is full of such insightful observations.

Smith has created a work with many levels. As in many such films, London Spy is rich in intriguing dualities. Pairs abound. There are 2 male lovers, there is an old man and a young man, there are 2 mothers, 2 fathers, 2 supportive parents at a support group, there are 2 murders, 2 professors, 2 objects on 2 chains, 2 fires, Frances says, "We both loved him," 2 identities, 2 survivors in a car at the end. It's a tantalizing swirl of dualities.

Danny is reminiscent of Danny in Stephen King's The Shining, but in London Spy the hedge maze is burned down.

Director Jakob Verbruggen, with cinematographer Laurie Rose, has created an evocative experience. The music contributes - even a bit from Rocky, which may seem incongruous but isn't.

The acting is brilliant. Ben Whishaw may be best known as Q in the last two Bond films, but he is becoming a star. Whishaw played Hamlet at London's Old Vic, and he is going to Broadway to act in a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

As Danny, his face is a map of perplexity. He is grim-visaged, with a compelling stare, pensive and alert. His wide eyes teem with doubt and dread.

Charlotte Rampling is a haunting presence as the enigmatic mother. Jim Broadbent gives special, vulnerable humanity to Scottie.

In London Spy, the creative filmmakers take us on a long, unrelenting journey into the soul.

© 2000-2020 Tony Macklin