Swapping James Bond’s glossy world of high-tech sleuthing for something far darker and strikingly realistic, Ben Wishaw’s latest TV drama is as far removed from his role as the youthful face of Q as possible. There are no fantastical gadgets, slinky Bond girls or ludicrous villains in London Spy; instead Tom Rob Smith’s subtle thriller offers a grim and chilling love story filled with depth, poignancy and introspection.
Wishaw plays Danny, a lonely, hedonistic romantic who spends his life trawling through the gloomy London rain and awful gay nightclubs in a desperate search for someone with whom he can connect. Then, one icy morning, he meets Alex (Wolf Hall’s Edward Holcroft), a softly-spoken, incredibly guarded (though surprisingly buff) young man who claims to work in finance. Though their first encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, the two lovers gradually realize they are perfect for each other.
What follows is a hopeful, tender and finely-drawn modern romance told with painful honesty as Danny and Alex start to change each other’s lives and find what they need to finally feel complete.
Written by Tom Rob Smith, the acclaimed author of Child 44 and The Farm, London Spy retains the meticulous characterization and delicate plotting his writing is renowned for. Scenes like the one where an exposed Alex opens up about why he has always resisted adult relationships are believable and deeply relatable, inviting us to invest totally in their story. Meanwhile, Smith gently constructs the overarching mystery, aided by the occasional suggestions that someone might be watching director Jakob Verbruggen scatters throughout the episode.
Such considered characters require equally strong performances to fill them, which Wishaw and Holcroft deliver with perfectly poised chemistry. Both actors paint thoughtful, understated portraits of broken people – Alex is a particularly intriguing presence, played with plenty of robotic mystery by Holcroft. The duo inhabit their roles totally, with a depth and subtlety that is entirely absorbing to watch.
Don’t let the spy drama tag fool you, though, this isn’t a relentlessly paced game of cat and mouse. The vast majority of the first episode is a slow burning affair, dedicating most of its time to exploring Danny and Alex’s burgeoning relationship. It pays off, though, with a brilliant period of high intensity during the final 15 minutes. As Alex vanishes and Danny is dragged into the murky world of British espionage in search of answers, the story finally kicks into gear; the stakes that have been raised so high throughout resulting in something that is truly gripping and utterly unmissable.
Click here to watch London Spy on BBC iPlayer