During the past two years, I have had the privilege of watching these five excellent British miniseries, all of which were made in the past five years and all of which fall into one of my favourite genres: political/spy (conspiracy) thrillers with a focus on intelligent dialogue over action. My memory of some of these series has faded, so I will provide only capsule reviews of these shows, but they are all highly recommended.
The Honourable Woman
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, a Jewish businesswoman who runs the powerful Stein Group and uses her influence to work for peace in the Middle East (specifically in terms of Jewish-Palestinian relations). When an apparent suicide by her business partner delays a long-planned project to provide an optical fibre connection to the West Bank, Stein’s life begins to unravel. The acting (especially by Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea, who works for MI6) is exceptional, as is much of the writing of this very compelling miniseries. There were a few scenes I found less than convincing and the violence was disturbing (this is not a show for the squeamish), so Hugo Blick’s 2014 The Honourable Woman gets only a solid ***+.
Hot off the press, Tom Rob Smith’s 2015 London Spy stars Ben Whishaw as Danny, a young man who falls in love with a spy (Secret Intelligence Service) named Alex (Edward Holcroft) who suddenly disappears eight months into their relationship. Danny is in for a great many nasty surprises in the weeks ahead, including learning of Alex’s involvement in a major conspiracy involving … well, that would be telling. Despite the enormity of the conspiracy and its implications, London Spy is not about that conspiracy but about relationships, especially the relationships between Danny and Alex and between Danny and Scottie (Jim Broadbent). Once again, the acting of Whishaw and Broadbent (as well as Charlotte Rampling, who is a central figure in the story) is exceptional, as are the writing, cinematography and score. London Spy is a first-class miniseries (though, again, it may be too dark for many viewers) and gets a solid ****.
This 2012 miniseries, directed by Edward Hall, is a WWII spy thriller (though it begins in the 1970’s and then flashes back) starring Hayley Atwell as Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman recruited by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) in 1939 to become a British spy, following the path of her recently-killed brother. Eva gets involved in some operations that go wrong and indicate the possible existence of a strange conspiracy. When Eva begins to uncover the truth, her life is suddenly in danger and it’s time to run. A little too much action in this one, as well as a few unsatisfactory plot elements, but the acting (Charlotte Rampling is on hand again), writing, cinematography and score are again very good and Restless has a well-conceived and unique structure. A solid ***+.
Another miniseries from 2012, Secret State stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins, an honest idealistic man who suddenly finds himself taking on the role of the British Prime Minister (following the sudden death, via plane crash, of the prime minister), a job he has never wanted. Faced with pressure from colleagues who want to replace him with a real politician, and faced with revelations of a major conspiracy involving the banks and big business (and the truth about what really happened on that plane), Dawkins find himself in a dark lonely place (though one of this show’s flaws is that we see so little of Dawkins’ personal life). Secret State shows what would happen if someone like Bernie Sanders became president of the United States. That’s good enough for me. Byrne is terrific and he’s supported by Charles Dance. This intelligent thriller is the most obscure of the miniseries described in this post, but it’s worth a watch. Secret State gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.
The Worricker Trilogy
Technically, David Hare’s The Worricker Trilogy is not a miniseries but three TV movies about Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy), an aging MI5 officer who gets caught up in various conspiracies at the heart of British intelligence (and the British government). The Worricker Trilogy features particularly complex, intelligent and compelling plots (of the John Le Carré variety), first class acting (by an incredibly high-quality cast, which includes, besides those mentioned below: Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, Rupert Graves and Olivia Williams) and top-notch production values (with gorgeous cinematography). Great stuff!
The first film of the trilogy is Page Eight (2011), in which Worricker tries to stand up against Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), a British Prime Minister who is not an honest idealist like Tom Dawkins. Along the way, Worricker begins a relationship with Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz), a neighbour who happens to be a political activist whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers. Various clandestine activities ensue. Page Eight is the best of the trilogy and gets ****.
The second film is Turks & Caicos (2013), in which Worricker finds himself once again at the centre of a conspiracy, even when he’s in hiding on the Turks & Caicos Islands. Christopher Walken plays the mysterious Curtis Pellisier, who introduces Worricker to a group of corrupt businessmen working for a company called Gladstone. When one of those businessmen is found dead the next morning, and a Gladstone liaison named Melanie Fall (Winona Ryder) acts suspiciously, and Pellisier’s true identity is revealed, Worricker has to think very fast to get himself out of trouble without compromising his principles (he has the help of his former girlfriend (and former MI5 analyst), Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter). Turks & Caicos gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.
On the run once again in the final film, Salting the Battlefield (2014), Worricker and Tyrell try to evade MI5 while exposing Beasley’s corrupt business dealings. While still a very good spy film, this is the weakest film of the series, with some disappointing plot elements, and gets only ***+.