Danny is a young romantic looking for love in all the wrong places — discos blaring Donna Summer oldies, for instance. By chance, he meets Alex. They talk, flirt, and commence an affair. Alex goes missing. Danny, bereft, tries to figure out what happened.
This is what occurs in the first episode of the five-part BBC America miniseries London Spy, premiering Thursday night, and is very nearly all I can tell you of the plot without spoiling things seriously. But there are other things to tell.
Danny is played by Ben Whishaw, whom you saw playing Q in the recent James Bond films. As created by the novelist Tom Rob Smith (Child 44), Danny is a street-smart young man whose budding cynicism is halted by meeting Alex, played with bluff intelligence and buff allure by Edward Holcroft. The opening hour is spent introducing Alex to us through Danny’s puppy-dog adoring eyes, whereas we see Danny for what he is, through the camera’s clearer eye: a lonely guy looking for another lonely guy to love.
The pair seems destined for each other, even though Danny’s life is complicated by his relationship with an older man who cares for, and often takes care of, him — he’s played with impeccable bluntness by Jim Broadbent. And Alex’s life is complicated by a mystery: He tells Danny he’s an orphan and a successful banker, but that turns out to be just the tip of the Alex-iceberg.
London Spy proceeds at a languid pace that will either draw you in, entranced, or repel you with tedium. I was drawn in, yet not quite entranced, but the series gets both better (it always helps anything when Charlotte Rampling shows up) and more flawed as it proceeds. It’s beautifully shot, and features a fascinating soundtrack that emphasizes discordant noises: the sounds of fabric tearing, people breathing, the sudden shriek of a cell phone — all are mixed high up and prominently in the show, to startle or disorient you.
As it goes on, that disorientation is necessary for London Spy to become the spy story it wants to be. That is, whenever it’s not a love story or, in its best moments, both. It turns out that the deliberate pacing works against the spy elements — the suspense is distended and slack — and that the love story was more engaging, more suspenseful. Which is just what this premiere episode tells us.
London Spy airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on BBC America.