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Review: ‘Slow Horses’ introduces audiences to a new kind of antihero

Gary Oldman delivers audiences an unhygienic anti-hero to remember in 'Slow Horses,' a new Apple TV Plus original drama.

Kristin Scott Thomas Slow Horses Apple TV Plus
Apple TV Plus

Directed in the main by James Hawes, a showrunner who brought TNT’s Snowpiercer to life, this seedy espionage thriller series stars Gary Oldman as a lifer in charge of the MI5 version of a dead letter office, and it’s solid stuff. Shot in and around London, Slow Horses takes its time to embrace the milieu of this sprawling metropolis, immersing audiences into a world of cut-price cloak and dagger.

As the plot thickens, a politically-charged kidnapping adds impetus, and early, introductory scenes, which are a savvy combination of action-based pursuit and visual exposition, pay dividends. Slow Horses is also a story about opposites in every conceivable manner, as Oldman’s Jackson Lamb faces off against his officious opposite number, Diana Taverner, played by Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas, who brings an icy demeanor and emotional detachment to the role, tinged with fleeting moments of vulnerability that make her almost human.

As the agendas of Taverner and Lamb conflict, converge and dissipate completely, Slow Horses turns into a genuine guessing game. Government-sponsored guns-for-hire clash with extremist groups out to make a statement, while Lamb and his cohorts navigate seedy side streets. In part, this feels like an old school spy thriller, overlayed with elements of hi-tech surveillance which add a modern edge.

The novel of the same name upon which the series is based, a creation from the pen of author Mick Herron, was adapted for Apple TV by Will Smith. Not that Will Smith, but the writer best-known for his work on Veep and the British political satire The Thick of It.

With Smith dancing around the dialogue, often giving Oldman some truly caustic diatribes, Slow Horses often proves to be simultaneously extremely funny yet poignant. As Jackson Lamb, Oldman is disheveled, dismissive, and disarming in his apparent indifference to everything around him. He perpetually paints the air blue with his gift for profanity, while his indolent charges wither in the wake of those witticisms. Like Barry Humphries’ Goblin King in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Lamb is often found in repose behind a battle-hardened demeanor, even as he is immersed in squalor, and baldly repulsive in his penchant for bodily debasement.

Yet over the course of this series, Lamb embraces his role as reluctantly reticent patriarch to a rabble of agents whose career mistakes have steered them out of the agency’s front lines. Lamb reveals himself to be a man of principle, even if the principles might be concealed beneath a sheen of unhygienic detachment.

Other supporting players in this espionage dramedy include Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce, in a small but pivotal role, much of which plays out alongside Jack Lowden, himself a veteran of high-profile small screen projects, like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, as well as indie film breakout Fighting with My Family, from writer-director Stephen Merchant. Although Pryce only makes a fleeting appearance, while Lowden’s Cartwright proves crucial to this eclectic ensemble, there is no denying that this story benefits from his presence.

Although certain elements of this show embrace conventional genre tropes, they are delivered to audiences with fresh eyes. Lamb might be using his indifference as a defense mechanism to insulate himself from others, but remains a fundamentally decent person. Diana Taverner puts a similar barrier up against her insecurities, which stem from a need for professional recognition.

Those are the clashes of ideology and agenda that give Slow Horses a much-needed injection of dramatic depth, which in turn adds pathos to any comedic moments. Both Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas are experienced enough to walk this line flawlessly, without once descending into caricature or stereotype. In many ways, their performances here mirror those they gave in Darkest Hour, where Oldman gets the best one-liners, while his revered co-star is reduced to an admirable supporting player, a fact which should never diminish the importance of that contribution in making Slow Horses such an engaging piece of entertainment.

Whether that translates into a sequel to this series remains to be seen, as there are a number of novels featuring Jackson Lamb already out there in the world. However, based on this outing alone, and with the full endorsement of Gary Oldman going forward, Slow Horses could be the beginning of something truly unique.  


Gary Oldman delivers audiences an unhygienic anti-hero to remember in this new Apple original drama.

TV Review: 'Slow Horses' introduces audiences to a new kind of anti-hero

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Martin Carr