Review: Gary Oldman gloriously leads a pack of spy misfits in new Apple TV+ series – SF Chronicle Datebook

With its intricate spycraft, taut plotting and bumbling but deadly criminals, the new Apple TV+ series “Slow Horses” plays like a serendipitous meeting between John le Carré and Elmore Leonard. It’s not a comedy, but humor is never far from the surface.
It moves fast, spearheaded by a rogue’s gallery of agents who have fallen out of favor with England’s Security Service, the MI5. They’ve all found their way into the doghouse, and minding the kennel is the biggest screwup of them all.
That would be Jackson Lamb, played by a slovenly, adenoidal and altogether glorious Gary Oldman. Swigging scotch in his dingy office and proudly breaking wind whenever he gets the chance, Lamb is an Oldman original, oily, caustic, always happy to keep his charges in line by reminding them who and where they are. Oldman can play dignified (see his Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”). He can do quiet (his George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a masterpiece of stillness). He can certainly do American. But he’s most satisfying as a down-and-out Englishman with little to lose. Which is all a way of saying “Slow Horses” is an Oldman fan’s feast.
But it’s also much more. Based on the series of “Slough House” novels by Mick Herron, “Slow Horses” — which has already been renewed for season two — conjures a grimy, rough-and-tumble London of dark streets and dingy internet cafes, a perfect setting for 21st century noir. The show weaves a tale that pits Lamb’s slow horses — played by Rosalind Eleazar, Olivia Cooke, Jack Lowden, Saskia Reeves, Christopher Chung and Dustin Demri-Burns — against the MI5 proper, represented by Kristin Scott Thomas’ cutthroat Diana Taverner (or, as the horses call her, Lady Di).
Lamb’s team isn’t just intelligence workforce castaways; they’re also scapegoats and patsies for anything that goes wrong, which, as it turns out, is quite a bit.
White nationalists, led by an electric, loose-cannon Brian Vernel, have kidnapped a young Pakistani Englishman (Antonio Aakeel), who they promise will be beheaded on camera the next morning. One of the kidnappers may be an MI5 plant, and the kidnapping itself may in fact be part of an MI5 operation. River Cartwright (Lowden), the most ambitious of the horses, smells a rat, a big, British one that sends him and his misfit colleagues scurrying through London for the truth.
“Slow Horses” melds a quick wit and vivid personality with a propulsive narrative that makes you want to seek out the source novels. The first season is only six episodes long, a perfect binge length that does away with the padding that plagues so many other series in the streaming age. There’s enough action, much of it unpredictable, for those who require it, but much of the activity here takes place between the ears. This makes it a perfect vehicle for the cerebral Oldman, who knows a great role when he sees one.
The show also gifts us with a new song from Mick Jagger and Daniel Pemberton, which plays over the opening and closing credits. Dripping with world-weary menace, it’s better than anything the Rolling Stones have done in years, the olive in a delicious dry martini of a series.
M“Slow Horses”: Drama series. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke and Brian Vernel. Directed by James Hawes. (TV-MA. Six episodes at approximately 60 minutes each). Two episodes streaming Friday, April 1, on Apple TV+. Subsequent episodes released Fridays through April 29.

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