DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. From James Bond to George Smiley, England's known for its attraction spy stories. The latest is "London Spy," a new series beginning tonight on BBC America. It stars Ben Whishaw as a young clubber who suddenly finds himself plunged into the middle high-level espionage. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen all five episodes. He says this is a spy thriller unlike any he's ever seen.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If there's any sensation that's distinctively modern, it's surely paranoia - the feeling that, somewhere, unseen forces are conspiring against us to steal our identities, take away our civil liberties, kill us in shopping malls. Small wonder that so many books and movies are bursting with stories about ordinary people. Like Cary Grant in "North By Northwest," who stumbled into a shadowy world of murderous conspiracy and struggled to get out alive. That's precisely what happens in "London Spy," a moody five-part BBC America series created and scripted by Tom Rob Smith, who wrote the terrific Soviet-era crime novel "Child 44."
The show divided audiences when it played in the U.K. last year and will surely do the same here, for Smith and his director, Jakob Verbruggen, are trying to do something almost impossibly ambitious - to capture genuine emotion while still delivering the artificial excitements of a spy thriller. "London Spy's" hero is something of an overgrown boy - a gay warehouse worker named Danny. He's played by Ben Whishaw, who's probably best known here as Q in the last two "James Bond" movies. Although Danny comes across as feckless and self-destructive – why, he's even a smoker – he's essentially an innocent, forever searching for love, and he thinks he found it when he meets Alex. That's Edward Holcroft, an enigmatic, socially awkward hunk who says he works in finance and has the posh flat to prove it.
The two fall wildly in love, or so Danny thinks, but then, as you might expect of a show titled "London Spy," things take a mysterious turn. Alex disappears, and even as Danny mourns his vanished lover, he finds himself being squeezed by Scotland Yard, MI6 and by assorted unsettling strangers who turn up out of the woodwork. The only person he can trust, if he can trust him, is Scottie, an older, gay civil servant whose unrequited love for Danny takes the form of being his guardian angel. Tenderly played by Jim Broadbent, Scottie helps his young friend get to the bottom of things. I don't want to say more, except that his quest involves meeting upper-class characters played by such crack veteran actors as Charlotte Rampling and James Fox. Here, after a police interrogation, Danny tells Scottie he realizes that Alex hadn't been altogether honest about his life.
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BEN WHISHAW: (As Danny) He lied about everything.
JIM BROADBENT: (As Scottie) When you introduced us…
WHISHAW: (As Danny) You knew?
BROADBENT: (As Scottie) Not exactly. Our paths have never crossed, but I recognize the type. See them in the corridors at Whitehall (ph) – people with power and secrets. Their importance emanates from them. I felt it. He worked for MI6. He was a spy.
POWERS: In promoting "London Spy," its stars pointedly said that it's not a gay story, but a story about people who happen to be gay. I understand the reasons for such claim. They don't want the show unfairly marginalized. But in fact, one of the best things about the series is how it uses the realities of gayness - not in the sex scenes, but in the gay cliches the authorities employed to target Danny and its portrait of Scottie, who might've stepped from the pages of an Alan Hollinghurst novel. Having lived through decades when homosexuality could get you imprisoned, Scottie learned to hide his true nature, to live a double life, just like a spy. This isn't coincidental in a series that's all about the conflict between loving and lying, between ordinary life and the kingdom of falsehoods that is espionage.
Over the show's five hours, we watch the goodhearted-but-self-absorbed Danny go from being a shuttlecock caught in history's breeze to a grown-up trying to understand how the world actually works. Deepened by loss, he develops a newfound sense of empathy that let's him see for once other people's pain and loss, too. All of this is magnificently conveyed by Whishaw, who sparkled playing everything from Shakespeare's King Richard II to Paddington Bear. With his lovely voice and puppy dog eyes, as Scottie calls them, Whishaw has no peer at playing lonely, wounded romantics out of sync with their world. Danny is precisely that, and his deeply felt performance - one of the greatest you'll see on TV this year - is reason enough for me to recommend "London Spy." Now, I should warn you that the story takes a while to get going, but once it does, late in part 1, you'll find yourself eager to know what happened. And if you're like me, you'll also be enthralled by the show's intensity, by a lingering emotional undertone that makes perfectly plotted thrillers seem as heartless as algebra. "London Spy" is messy and sometimes absurd, but then again, so is life.
DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "London Spy," beginning tonight on BBC America.
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DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, such as our interview with Jane Mayer about the political influence of wealthy conservative families or our interview with actor Ray Liotta, check out our podcast, where you'll find those and many other interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.