'The first episode was excellent, the second nonsense and I just hung on because I couldn't believe it wouldn't get better. Piffle."
That statement is one I read in reaction to a rave review of London Spy, a drama that was hailed in Britain and incited declarations that everyone involved should be up for awards. Obviously, there were others who disagreed.
London Spy has finally arrived here via Netflix Canada (currently streaming) and it is just as perplexing as reading advance notices would suggest. It's a spy story yet not really about espionage in any familiar way. It starts as a murder mystery of sorts. Then it stops being that. Each episode – there are five – seems only vaguely connected to the previous one, until the subtly combined threads become apparent in the final one.
What's most striking about it as a drama, and what will frustrate some viewers, is how slow it is. Characters have long conversations. Sometimes those conversations don't seem to move the plot forward. It's all ellipses and diversions. And it is the most visually striking drama from Britain in some time. The elaborate, often ornate beauty of it can leave you reeling. And you're already reeling because you're unsure where the story is going to take you. It is highly recommended by me, but gorge on it only if you are ready for the least traditional spy drama of all time.
At its core, mind you, it is a riddle. Danny (Ben Whishaw), a solitary, twentysomething gay man who at first seems emphatically stoned on some drug or other, meets a handsome man who is out jogging in central London. Their eyes lock. Is it love, lust or a craftily engineered espionage move? Well, it's love. The jogger, Alex (Edward Holcroft), tells Danny he's gay, but nobody in his life knows that. They begin a relationship. It's a blissful one and they seem smitten with each other.
Then Alex disappears. Danny is puzzled and heartbroken. Mysterious things happen, though, and somebody seems to be inviting him to explore the missing Alex's home. He does and finds Alex dead. Something horrible, a sado-masochism sex ritual or such, seems to have gone terribly awry. The authorities conclude as much and aren't very interested in digging deeper.
Danny is convinced that Alex was murdered and that the scene of death was an elaborate charade constructed by unseen, malicious forces. He simply doesn't believe anything he's hearing. He's not a spy, though, and not much experienced in the world. As he attempts to solve the puzzle of Alex's death, he enters a box of puzzles that gets very strange. Riddle follows riddle. Alex was actually named Alistair. He was a genius with numbers and codes. But was he a spy? And if so, for whom?
For some perspective, Danny turns to Scottie (Jim Broadbent), an older gay man who, in the past, was indeed a spy. They have a lengthy conversation about deception and how at one time being gay was a permanent game of deception. Who is Scottie? That's never quite clear.
There are sequences that venture fully but briefly into the traditional espionage drama, familiar from John le Carré novels. Alex was up to something, and he seems to have created a secret numerical code. A mysterious American pops up and advises Danny that he needs protection. But from whom? At times, the drama suggests that every character has a double identity. That is, everyone except Danny. And then the drama pulls away from espionage entirely. To say that London Spy (created by novelist Tom Rob Smith) is enigmatic is an understatement. It fully intends to keep the viewer off balance. Eventually, it dawns on you, if you have patience, that it is in fact about identity and truth. It's about how people can choose their identity or can allow others – the state, family, the police – to impose an identity on them.
It's about intuition too. There is an extraordinary scene in the second episode that underlines this. Danny explains to a woman who claims to be Alex's mother (played with uncanny iciness by Charlotte Rampling) that although he's young, gay, fond of drugs and works at a dead-end, minimum-wage job, he can tell when he's hearing lies. He recognizes the truth when he sees it. And it is wrong to think of him as stupid and unsophisticated.
The drama is also a love story, sometimes of excruciating longing. The main characters are gay men but that becomes irrelevant. The dynamic at the throbbing heart of this maddening, gorgeously made and seemingly meandering drama is that of love between two people who found great solace in each other. It's about obsessive love and loss. It isn't piffle at all.