Spy City review: A very Bondesque thriller – sexism included

Dominic Cooper plays Scott, Fielding Scott, in new Britbox espionage drama

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 22 December 2021 11:13 GMT
Dominic Cooper in ‘Spy City’
Dominic Cooper in ‘Spy City’ (Britbox)

Christmas is, traditionally, the time when we have an excuse to watch (ie fall fast asleep during) Bond movies, so the latest BritBox launch, Spy City, is entirely appropriate. Starring Dominic Cooper as Scott, Fielding Scott, a very Bondesque British agent in Cold War Berlin, it’s very much in the style of the earliest adaptations of Ian Fleming’s novels, which were being shown for the first time when this mini-series is set, around 1961. Berlin in those days was half occupied by truculent Russians, and half by the western allies.

There are two sets of particular mysteries to unravel in Spy City, a place where no one trusts anyone else and no one knows quite what’s going on, much like our own dear government today. The drama opens with a very unfortunate incident in a German public toilet, where the cleaner is shot dead by a man who is then beaten to death against a urinal by Agent Scott. I did wonder what the German police might make of such a scene, and so does Scott when he finds out that the bloke he just smashed up in the khazi is in fact also a British agent and a good friend of the station chief.

Leaving aside some misunderstanding about what they were both doing hanging about in the gents’ loo, Scott needs to know why this man tried to murder him. Understandable, but his British colleagues back at spy HQ in West Berlin are unhelpful and suspicious, which makes Scott even more suspicious… well, you know the kind of paranoid spiral thing they do.

The second, no doubt connected, puzzle is who betrays Scott’s old friend, a brilliant East German rocket scientist who ends up dead, alongside his family, just as they were about to defect with a new missile guidance system. This being Cold War Berlin under four-way international control, there’s a choice of stereotypical suspects – brash Americans, public school British and sexy French. The sexy French agent, Severine Bloch, is portrayed with as much dignity as she can manage by Romane Portail, but she’s still more the kind of disposable woman you’d find in an old Bond movie than anything you’d have the right to expect in our more woke times. Still, there’s time for Bloch’s character development, seeing as we learn that her husband was tortured to death in the war by the Germans for being in the Resistance; therefore maybe he was a Communist, therefore maybe she is sympathetic to the Soviet Union… Scott is also being spied on by his German secretary, Eliza (Leonie Benesch), but that hardly counts.

Spy City is a sort of compromise between a smart le Carré dramatisation and a knockabout Bond caper. It works because it means you can keep up with all the twists and it’s more involving than a succession of car chases and overacting evil masterminds. The excellent costumes add to the sense of style, and they very successfully mesh archive footage with the reconstructions.

On the downside, it’s infused with the kind of casual sexism, lack of diversity and indifferent dialogue that marked the worst of the Sean Connery era. There’s also a fairly gratuitous and interminable sex scene (Scott and Bloch, inevitably) that is almost as unintentionally comic as the bloodbath in the bogs. Very Christmassy, I’m sure.

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