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Slow Horses review of Gary Oldman delivers

Let us take a minute to talk about Gary Oldman. The veteran British actor has had a long and distinguished career in theatre and cinema.

Oldman has played memorable movie villains (Léon: The Professional, True Romance, Air Force One), kindly blockbuster father figures (the Harry Potter films, The Dark Knight trilogy), and even the odd vampire (Francis Ford Coppola’s artfully grotesque 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Not to mention his spit-tacular Emmy-nominated guest appearance on Friends in 2001.

Yet, he won the highest acting honours of his career for his portrayal of the controversial Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2018) – a marvellous performance in an unnecessary, overwrought film. “Put the kettle on. I’m bringing Oscar home,” he said to his mother during his acceptance speech after winning the Academy Award for that role. The goosebumps surrounding those moments last to this day. His other heavily nominated performance before that was as George Smiley, Spy in the visceral, almost arcane 2011 movie adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

All of this seems to be perfect background for the character that Oldman plays in the Apple TV+ miniseries Slow Horses. An adaptation of a novel of the same name by Mick Herron, the six-episode espionage thriller-drama plays out in the murky corridors of British Intelligence. The title of the show refers to a deadbeat department, where spies who have goofed up are sent to rot. It is what we Indians would recognise as a ‘punishment posting’.

First, we meet River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) of the MI5, who screws up an operation right at the start of the show and is consequently dismissed to Slough House. The top dog in the dump is Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb – foul-mouthed legend of British spy-dom, now content with being a day-drinking nihilist, unafraid to speak bluntly or fart in front of his subordinates at Slough House and superiors at Regent’s Park alike. (Yup, Jackson Lamb farts, loud and proud.)

The slow horses of Slough House are a motley crew in themselves, each with their own little backstory of why they are stuck in this professional, slow-burning dumpster fire. These guys are not meant to be the ones saving the day, though they can tell that to themselves if it helps them sleep better. (They do, after all, technically work for British intelligence.) You could liken this disrespected, downtrodden bunch as a kind of Suicide Squad, with a fraction of the gloss and exponentially higher existentialism.

In many ways, their lives seem quite like the London of the show – grim, overcast, morose, and rainy. Their predicament reminded me of another intriguing workplace in another recent Apple TV+ dark-comedy, where employees have nothing but each other (if that) – Lumon Industries in Severance. No one particularly knows what the meaning of their life is once they are there. But while Severance was bright, futuristic, and most importantly, American, Slow Horses is as British as it gets. The droll self-loathing and crabby banter are on full display from everyone of note in the show.

The newest slow horse, Cartwright, is bit of a meddler. And aided with the privilege of being grandson to a veteran spy himself, his meddling ends up embroiling his doomed fellow pariahs in a web of lies and spies. The plot that Cartwright follows has its own intriguing twists. The case in question involves the kidnapping of a young Muslim man by members of a far-right group that call themselves the Sons of Albion. There is a generous sprinkling of British domestic politics, with casual geopolitics thrown about once in a while.

The primary focus is on the activities of the extreme among those who call themselves ‘nationalists’ and ‘patriots’. It is a story that could be retrofitted into any of the world’s creaking democracies. Politicians build their careers on pitting the patriots against the outsiders, even as spies pull the strings through shadowy backroom games. Yet, somehow, everyone on the show is incompetent at their jobs to varying degrees, all of which make things relentlessly dour, but also consistently gratifying.

Cartwright and his fellow youthful slow horse Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke) develop a rapport that seems to be heading somewhere, before the machinations from the bosses at Regent’s Park upend their lives. Kristin Scott Thomas turns out a seamlessly effective performance as Diana Taverner, high up in the chain of command at MI5 (though in such secretive organisations, the higher you are, the fuzzier the hierarchy looks.) Even the minor characters – the relatively dim-witted members of the Sons of Albion or some of the other Slow Horse crew – get a moment or two to shine.

Oldman’s prominence on the show increases as it goes along, until he is the one largely motoring it along. For those who enjoy profanity in dialogue, Jackson Lamb is a character for the ages. (I would love to borrow a juicy one-liner or two from him myself.)

Looking and feeling every bit the nebulous alcoholic that Lamb is, the performance will sneak up on you more often than once. By the time you have fallen for the plot and the world of the show, you would have fallen for him as well. Or vice-versa.

This is not just another feather in Oldman’s immense hat, but another win for Apple TV+. I have increasingly come to believe this service is more likely to hit the mark than miss it with their streaming offerings; even before the tech behemoth became the first streamer to bag that pretentious but undeniably prestigious Best Picture Oscar.