April 2022

Noted

‘Slow Horses’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘Slow Horses’
A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

If you’re confused about which arm of British intelligence Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) works for, the dissolute spy has his own nomenclature. “M.I. fucking useless,” he declares in the debut episode of this nuanced, thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience. Armed with a smoker’s cough and a boozer’s red nose, Lamb is poles apart from Oldman’s magisterial portrayal of George Smiley in the 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A Cold War veteran with MI5, Lamb has been exiled to run Slough House, a dumping ground for the agency’s misfits. Their punishment is menial work and Lamb’s derision; resignation is the only escape.

Suffering in festering offices far from MI5’s Regent Park headquarters, the Slough House (“slow horses”) crew hide their failings from each other, but that’s not an option for River Cartwright ( Jack Lowden), whose fall from grace was so public it has a body count. The grandson of a retired MI5 grandee ( Jonathan Pryce), Cartwright has an ambition that sees him jealously investigating a colleague assigned actual surveillance work involving a journalist with ties to the far right. Cartwright is driven, filled with initiative and unyielding. But from another angle, he’s cocksure, stubborn and desperate to get back in the game. Cartwright’s strengths and weaknesses are one and the same.

Adapted by Will Smith from Mick Herron’s Slough House novels, this limited series is unusually astute when it comes to the binding force of human foibles. Even as the narrative inexorably gains pace, with a terror plot involving white nationalists, the tradecraft is motivated by ambition and boredom, paranoia and reckless self-belief. Everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s MI5’s ruthless number two, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), the extremist cell or the sidelined Slough House staff. Without being jarring, the sardonic tone allows for bloody plot twists, while breathless pursuits are contrasted with acerbic exchanges.

This is a welcome change for Oldman, who gets to very effectively take the piss. “Bringing you lot up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog,” Lamb tells his underlings, and the show is too canny to let the old hand become a mentor. When Cartwright tries to confide in him, Lamb dozes off. The ageing spook’s disdain gives him a clear understanding of what’s happening, but what Oldman does beyond that is reveal, with bittersweet detail, how Lamb’s solitude stems from self-loathing. He’s seen enough to know that none of this is a game, no matter how good he is at playing it.

The muscular direction of James Hawes and the gritty evocation of London give Slow Horses the feel of a covert thriller such as Spooks or The Night Manager. But no matter how purposeful the storytelling is, or how imminently life or death the stakes are, there’s also an absurdist undercurrent that recalls The Thick of It, the scabrous Whitehall satire that Armando Iannucci created prior to crossing the Atlantic for Veep. It’s rare for a thriller to be this gripping when it’s so awake to the cynicism that surges through it. Protecting the national interest really means indulging personal flaws. Everyone has got their insecurity clearance.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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