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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jack Seale

Slow Horses season 2 review – Gary Oldman’s spy thriller is a cut above

Gary Oldman looking rumpled in Slow Horses.
A rich creation … Gary Oldman in Slow Horses. Photograph: Jack English/Apple TV+

Spies never stop being spies, even when they’ve been out of the game for a while, and even when they know the game is up. Season two of Slow Horses (AppleTV+) starts with an old geezer standing behind the counter of a Soho sex shop, minding his own business – until he recognises a passerby and immediately sets off in pursuit, tailing the mystery man to a railway station, on to a train, then through the rain to catch a rail replacement bus bound for Oxford Parkway. On the bus, the sex shop proprietor begins to feel unwell, but before he drops dead, he types a single codeword into his phone and hides the device down the side of his seat. The man he was following gets away.

Much of what makes Slow Horses a tasty mis-shape of a drama can be found in that sequence, from the way it’s in bustling London one minute and an unglamorous provincial car park the next, to the fact that a bristly shambles of a man is the protagonist in an exciting chase. Star casting, too: the sex-shop guy, who is clearly a retired intelligence agent, has no lines and carks it before the opening credits, and yet he’s played by the great Phil Davis.

Jack Lowden in Slow Horses.
Jack Lowden in Slow Horses. Photograph: Jack English/Apple TV+

At the helm of Slow Horses is another big name playing another wily codger: Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House. That’s the run-down London building, imagined by Mick Herron in the novels the series is based on, to which MI5 spies are sent when they’ve screwed up too badly to continue their regular duties, but not quite badly enough to be fired outright. Instead, they linger in professional purgatory, performing tedious admin tasks and dodgy off-the-books jobs that have a tendency to lead them into grave peril. But the worst thing about Slough House is having to work for Lamb.

Rude, actively unhelpful and looking like he has been sleeping in the same clothes since last Tuesday – a tang of fags, whisky, old sweat and dry coffee breath nearly radiates out of the screen – Lamb is a rich creation, played with coarse relish by Oldman and scripted with glee by showrunner Will Smith. The writer’s pedigree comes from The Thick of It and Veep, and it shows in the Slough House scenes where Lamb abrasively holds court. When two underlings decline a mission because they’ve been seconded elsewhere: “Seconded? Who by, Twats R Us?”

Lamb is, however, a master of old-school tradecraft who knows immediately that the dead man on the bus is Richard “Dickie” Bow, a spook who used to work out of Berlin and who hasn’t simply had a heart attack, as claimed by the Oxford authorities. After a lovely bit of comic business where Lamb poses as Dickie’s brother, playing him as a plummy, luvvie-ish eccentric who wants to examine the place where Dickie died to see if any of his “life force” remains, the phone is retrieved and the code interpreted: Russian sleeper assassins in Britain have been reactivated. The Slough House spies on secondment, meanwhile, are working not for Twats R Us but for MI5 head office, brokering a meeting between the British government and a Russian dissident.

Rendezvous … Kristin Scott Thomas on a bench by the canal in Slow Horses.
Rendezvous … Kristin Scott Thomas in Slow Horses. Photograph: Jack English/Apple TV+

So begins a caper that takes in high-class hotels and multimillion-pound houses in London, as well as council flats, towpaths and backstreet import/export businesses, all filmed with a gorgeous crispness that feels as luxurious as the casting. Slow Horses loves a shot of sunlight streaming through a gin-palace pub window, or a London park looking impossibly verdant; a conversation between Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, as Lamb’s slippery opposite number at the proper MI5, is pleasingly shot as if the camera is floating past them along a canal. Every scene has a finesse of quality or invention.

When the trail takes Slough House agent River (Jack Lowden) into the heart of the Cotswolds, the English countryside looks equally fabulous – and Slow Horses gets to pull the trick where it has its comedy-drama cake and eats it, because while River is capable of elite fieldwork, he is also capable of becoming embroiled in a sitcommy scene where he struggles to extract information from a greedy village minicab driver who knows more than he lets on.

The show does stretch plausibility by placing proper espionage thrills – a bicycle v taxi surveillance race, or a night-time heist on a high-security data repository – alongside the pratfalling comedy caused by the Slough House team’s acid bickering and occasional ineptitude, which the script turns on and off at will. Yet it’s always entertaining: odd as they may be, these Slow Horses are a cut above regular spies.

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