Appellate Judge James A. Stewart reminds viewers this isn't the Wisconsin espionage drama Spies of Wausau.
"Now everything is gray."
David Tennant, who played a time traveler on Doctor Who, gets to change history as a flesh-and-blood earthling in Spies of Warsaw. He plays a spy who realizes that the Germans are practicing for an invasion.
As with a historical Doctor Who episode, a little knowledge of pre-World War II Europe helps, as Tennant and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais remind us in a featurette while bringing viewers up to date on that history. Thus, this is one DVD where you probably should check out the extras first.
The two-part miniseries is based on an Alan Furst novel.
Facts of the Case
As the story opens on the German-Polish border in September 1937, spy Jean-Francois Mercier (David Tennant) questions a man who was attacked by Germans. While investigating what the Germans are up to, Jean-Francois pursues Anna (Janet Montgomery, Our Idiot Brother).
The first chapter of the two-part miniseries has a beautiful historical drama feel to it—I couldn't help thinking of the splendid chandelier in Upstairs, Downstairs—as characters interact in fancy restaurants and mansions. The story also feels like one of those costume dramas as Anna is torn between Jean-Francois and Max (Piotr Baurman, The Wolfman). Jean-Francois is told by his superiors to abandon the affair for political reasons, but you kind of know that's not going to happen. The situation gets gritty in the second half, which takes Jean-Francois and Anna up to their escape from Poland just ahead of the Nazis.
The leads handle their roles well, even if the characters are a little too familiar. David Tennant plays a spy who leaves a hospital wounded to complete a mission and casually sets off an explosion at one point with a James Bond-ish touch. He—and the tone of the drama—are established early on as he discusses the shrapnel and bullet embedded in his body while making love. Janet Montgomery is saddled with lines like "You have no idea about my feelings for Max" as she deals with conflicts that seem too familiar.
The romantic conflicts in the first half doesn't play as well as the espionage in the second half. Spies of Warsaw feels a little slow at first, even though the scenes shift quickly between the Germans and their war games and the romantic triangle. There's a sense of ominousness over everything but it only gels near the end of the first half.
The fight scenes and explosions that punctuate the sometimes talky drama are well-mounted, and everything from posh restaurants to forests on the Polish-German border looks sharp.
The interviews with star and writers provide good background to the story. Commentary might have been nice, but what's here is better than average.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you like wartime romances—David Tennant compares the story to Casablanca—the predictability probably won't deter you, and explosions always spice things up.
Spies of Warsaw is worth checking out, but it doesn't have much repeat viewing potential. If you have BBC America, it'll probably turn up again. If not, Netflix or a rental is the way to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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