The opening sequence of Slow Horses, based on the bestselling book series by Mick Herron, presents as a slick Bourne Identity-style espionage thriller as a dashing agent, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is seen directing a team of intelligence agents shadowing a suspected terrorist at an airport. He’s reporting live to Diana Taverner (a steely Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of MI5. It’s slick, tense and fast-paced – until it all goes wrong.
It’s swiftly revealed though, to have been a training exercise – one that Cartwright failed miserably. But rather than being fired, Cartwright, the grandson of a former high-ranking agent (Jonathan Pryce), is instead sent to a paper-shuffling department known colloquially as Slough House – “because it might as well be in Slough” – staffed by other MI5 agents, labelled “slow horses” who have made monumental career-ending stuff-ups.
The “slow horses” of MI5.
The grimy department, where the most menial of spy work is done – tracking documents, sifting through CC-TV footage and combing through parking tickets from the 1990s – is headed up by the equally grimy, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and unashamedly flatulent Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman at his best and most revolting), who is as rude to his staff as he is lazy. He greets his staff with comments such as “Another day dawns on MI-f–king useless”, before insulting each of them in turn.
But Lamb is more than he seems; he was once a highly regarded field agent who, for reasons not immediately clear, was himself relegated to the “administrative purgatory”. His staff – Christopher Chung as the obnoxious hacker/tech expert Roddy, Rosalind Eleazar as Louisa, Paul Higgins as the bumbling Struan, Dustin Demri-Burns as Min (disgraced for leaving a top-secret file on a tube), secretary Saskia Reeves as Standish, a recovering alcoholic with her own secrets and Olivia Cooke as Sid, who, unlike the others, seems genuinely competent – also keep their reasons for being dumped there secret, but over the six episodes, their respective stuff-ups (those whose mistakes aren’t already the stuff of legend, that is) are revealed.
Gary Oldman is superb – and revolting – as disgraced MI5 agent Jack Lamb.
After several months at Slough House, Cartwright is determined to get back into proper intelligence work, and when he discovers that Sid is actually doing real fieldwork, targeting a has-been right-wing journalist who may be linked to the high-profile kidnapping of Muslim student Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel) by a bunch of right-wing extremists, he wants in. Especially if it means he can make his way back to The Park, as MI5’s Regents Park HQ is known.
After doing his own after-hours investigating, Cartwright believes he’s on to something that links the case – a huge national news story once the kidnappers proclaim they will behead their captive in a live stream – to some right-wing politicians. Finding Ahmed is out of the Slough House remit, but several twists eventually see the slow horses back in the game. Sort of.
Written by Veep co-creator Will Smith, Slow Horses is a comedy, something of a satire of le Carre-style capers, but it also manages to be a genuinely twisty, old-school spy thriller at the same time. So twisty in fact, it’s hard to keep up – and even harder to explain without spoilers. The cracking tale plays with a few classic spy story tropes with a knowing wink, but it’s also a violent and at times grisly tale, particularly the storyline involving the kidnappers. It’s Oldman’s portrayal of Lamb, though, all dirty socks, insults, swearing and farting (there is a lot of farting) that is likely to elicit the most visceral disgust.
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