Imagine “Looking” as written by John le Carre, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of “London Spy,” a five-hour British miniseries that tackles queer themes through the prism of a spy thriller. It’s written by Tom Rob Smith and directed by Jakob Verbruggen, both worthy of Emmy consideration — it’s visually stylish, tensely paced and features deep dialogue scenes that are almost hypnotic in how they draw you into story and character — but I’d like to focus on three actors who I think are key to the story’s success: Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling.
Whishaw has become the kind of actor who makes me excited for a project just by virtue of being in it, having given a wide range of performances in the last five years that I’ve almost uniformly liked. That includes the underappreciated TV series “The Hour,” the underseen drama “Lilting” and multiple films in the last year alone, like “Suffragette,” “The Danish Girl” and best of all “The Lobster” (seriously, go see that one when it opens in May).
Here he plays Danny, who falls in love with the mysterious title character (Edward Holcroft) only to be drawn into the machinations of international intelligence agencies. The outsider who gets in over his head is a familiar trope, but while Danny seems hopelessly outgunned in a battle against governments, we believe his stubbornness because of how being gay influences his desire to fight back.
Consider one of the best scenes of the series, in which Danny suspects he has been deliberately infected with HIV. The anxiety of waiting for his test results is allowed to play out in what feels like real time, and Whishaw’s agonized performance during the excruciating silence crystalizes his entire character and his seemingly hopeless crusade: he won’t let his sexuality be used as a weapon against him.
Broadbent’s character further underlines this point. He plays Scottie, Danny’s trusted friend and a former spy himself, whose homosexuality has shaped his career and consequently his entire life. There’s a latent rage in Broadbent’s performance that conveys decades of resentment at a government that first persecuted gays and then ignored them; there are lengthy scenes in which he describes the witch hunt that almost branded him a traitor, and then the suffering of a past lover who died of AIDS. The length and detail of these scenes eaves no doubt that they are essential to the series’s themes: this is not just about one particular government plot, this is the pent up revolt of gay men who won’t go down without a fight.
As both mentor and experienced operative, Broadbent balances the two sides of Scottie. He’s at once comforting and steely, and he commands the screen with such authority that you always feel you’re in good hands when he’s around — and that applies to both Scottie and Broadbent. He’s the linchpin of the series.
Rampling first appears in the second episode as a character who at first seems tangential: Frances, the mother of the title character. At first cold and inscrutable, the secrets we ultimately learn from her add heartbreaking context to an already sad story, but also an unexpected glimmer of hope — maybe it isn’t futile to resist a cruel system, for women or gay men. Rampling, fresh off her first Oscar nomination last year for “45 Years,” is perfectly suited to a spy story because we can always sense her thinking, calculating and strategizing even when she’s perfectly still. And that makes it all the more powerful when her cool reserve breaks down.
Rampling earned surprise Emmy and SAG nominations for another spy miniseries, “Restless,” in 2013, so she has been on the TV academy’s radar before, even when she wasn’t a freshly minted Oscar-nominee.
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Photo credits: BBC America