'Spies of Warsaw': Mission not accomplished

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2013 

In BBC America's adaptation of "Spies of Warsaw," David Tennant plays Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a French military attache attached to the embassy in Warsaw during the run-up to World War II.

Unfortunately, despite a valiant attempt, Tennant never quite pulls off the Frenchman.

That, on top of the series' leisurely pacing and a flawed assumption that viewers must know what is going on in that period of history in Eastern Europe, leads to a disappointing two-part outing for the cable network. (The show starts Wednesday and concludes April 10.)

An intelligence officer, Mercier runs agents into Germany for information about the Nazis. A World War I veteran, he sees another war on the horizon. His superiors in Paris don't agree.

Few are who they seem to be in Warsaw. The city is filled with secret agents from across Europe - both White and Soviet Russians, Germans, Brits, Poles and others.

Some of the spies are even in danger from their own governments. As Viktor Rozen (Alan Corduner), a Bolshevik working for the Soviet Union who's threatened by Stalin's purges, confesses to Mercier, "You work half your life - 25 years of secrets and obedience - and still you're afraid of the knock on the door at midnight."

The dangers of being Jewish pervade the series. "Spies of Warsaw" ends in 1939; a year later, Warsaw's Jews would be herded behind ghetto walls before being sent to Nazi death camps.

Mercier does his best to help those who ask him. He's aided by his Polish intelligence counterpart, Antoni Pakulski (Marcin Dorocinski), whom he's known for almost 20 years from when they fought the Russians on the Polish border.

A widower, Mercier falls in love with a Polish woman, Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery), a lawyer for the League of Nations, living with an exiled Russian journalist.

An excellent actor, Tennant is best known in the U.S. for playing the 10th "Doctor Who."

If you know about the real-life "special friendship" between Poland and France, it is easier to understand the ending. It's very clear in Alan Furst's novel, "Spies of Warsaw," but less so here.

Lovely tidbits are strewn throughout. For example, when a member of British Intelligence in Paris refers to a man as "Philby," some might remember that, in real life, Harold "Kim" Philby was an English traitor who worked for the Soviets for decades, defecting to Moscow in 1963.

"Spies of Warsaw" contains scenes of nudity and sex.

Twitter handle: @TishWells1

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