‘London Spy’ is psychologically mesmerizing

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Ben Whishaw (left) and Edward Holcroft in “London Spy.”
Ben Whishaw (left) and Edward Holcroft in “London Spy.”Ed Miller

One person's tedium is another person's riveting depth. "London Spy," a new BBC America miniseries, may remind you of that TV axiom, as the drama creeps forward with the kind of deliberate pace that, as with "Rectify" and "Breaking Bad," requires patience. It most certainly rewards you for your focus, as it brings you into a sense of real time with the characters and enables you to see and feel all of what is at stake. A lot is happening in each mesmerizing moment, not action-wise but psychologically. But still, be forewarned, "London Spy" runs a few miles behind fast shows such as "Empire," which are driven to offer at least one major plot twist between every commercial break.

OK, now that I've gotten that caveat out of the way, I can drop some praise on "London Spy," which premieres on Thursday night at 10. The five-part miniseries is both a rich love story and, as the dull title indicated, a spy drama, with both genres tightly bound up together. Ben Whishaw stars as Danny, a lonely man who works at a big box store, lives in a shabby apartment with friends, and is getting tired of and too old for a life of one-night stands. When he has a chance meeting with handsome investment banker Alex, played by Edward Holcroft, he falls fast. Alex is still in the closet, and, quite unlike Danny, has never acted on his gay attractions. Still, they forge a deep bond, which we watch unfold as if through a microscope.


And that's all I'm going to say about the story line, which, with some Hitchcockian flair, develops into something unexpected and mysterious. I'm not even going to tell you who Charlotte Rampling plays, when she shows up with a chilly wind in episode 2. But I will say that your understanding of the facts of the situation will change with each enigmatic hour. Part of the pleasure of "London Spy," created and written by Tom Rob Smith, is the way truths about the characters — not just Danny and Alex, but Danny's older gay friend and mentor, Jim Broadbent's Scottie — emerge gradually, elliptically, after you've been wondering for a while. Very little about the plot is telegraphed ahead of time.

Whishaw is extraordinary in this role. The actor, who has played Q in the last two James Bond movies, has done plenty of standout work in recent years, in the TV journalism drama "The Hour" and in the movie "Bright Star" as poet John Keats. But I don't think I've ever seen him quite as raw as he is in "London Spy," which features some dreamily explicit sex scenes. It's a seamless and seemingly effortless performance, with Whishaw thoroughly immersed in the role, and it's a treat to watch him work dynamic scenes with the formidable Rampling and Broadbent.


As Danny, Whishaw is boyish and flip right down to the way he walks. But you can feel the exhaustion in his soul at his rudderless life, before he and Alex's relationship takes off (Whishaw even looks a bit like depressed musician Nick Drake). You can tell, as the show's mystery develops, that his new love has made him finally ready to fight for what he wants. Despite the fact that Danny spent years doing drugs and having random sex, he remains a romantic, which Whishaw conveys with great subtlety. You may or may not struggle with the heightened, heated-up filmmaking in "London Spy," which is filled with artful camera angles and non-linear time leaps, but you will likely fall under Whishaw's spell.


Danny is out to sea as his relationship with Alex ushers him into a challenging and murky new reality. And Smith puts us alongside Danny for the ride, as he fights to find out what is really going on and who is zooming who. Despite governmental bluff and other significant obstacles, Danny refuses to drop out. He doggedly continues to follow the trail of clues and suspicions as they emerge in "London Spy." I'm glad I did the same thing.


Starring: Ben Whishaw, Edward Holcroft. Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Samantha Spiro. On BBC America, Thursday night, 10-11:15

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.