There's a reason "Spies of Warsaw" isn't airing as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."
I expected the two-parter (8 p.m. April 3 and 10, BBC America; 2 stars out of 4) to be a tense thriller, what with the 10th Doctor Who, David Tennant, playing Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a French aristocrat who's actually a covert operative spying on both the Nazis and the Russians in pre-World War II Poland.
Spies are hot right now. But in this four-hour miniseries adapted by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais from the Alan Furst novel, they're mostly boring. Any cloak-and-dagger intrigue is too often interrupted by a stiffly acted romance involving Tennant and Janet Montgomery, late of CBS' short-lived "Made in Jersey," who plays Anna Skarbek, a lawyer for the League of Nations.
So while Jean-Francois is recruiting Warsaw locals and a German scientist into spying for him, he and Anna trade longing looks to a bluesy score and share icky dialogue like, "Our lives aren't as simple as they are in your bed," and, "You know my situation. We hardly know one another." (Anna says the latter line just before hopping into bed with the Frenchman.)
Both Tennant and Mongomery seem uninterested in the whole affair, just as the production apparently wasn't all that worried about how the actors should deliver their often hackneyed lines. Germans speak German with English subtitles. Poles speak English with Polish accents and the Russians speak English with Russian accents--or some vaguely Eastern European accents. Meanwhile, the French speak English with British accents.
As a fan of both Tennant and spy thrillers, I gave all these problems a pass on first viewing. But after watching again I realized "Spies of Warsaw" tells its story in such a leisurely way that it lacks any of the tension you'd expect from a spy story set in 1937-39 Warsaw, which just a year later would be terrorized as the Nazis herded its Jews behind ghetto walls.
The story picks up a bit in energy in its second night, but too often the plot builds to a crisis point and then sputters out. Despite its historic gravitas and scrupulous attention to period detail, "Spies of Warsaw" never really ignites.
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