'Slow Horses' review: Gary Oldman's scuzzy spy brings life to new Apple series

Gary Oldman in in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)
Gary Oldman in in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)

Slow Horses, a scuzzy new espionage thriller from the mind of author Mick Herron which premieres on Apple TV+ from 1 April, features an unwashed Gary Oldman on sardonically indifferent form.

Unshaven, unhygienic and under the radar, his Jackson Lamb is a truly unsanitary creation. Ensconced in an office for MI5 cast offs he is rotting away at the bottom of a bottle, whilst chain smoking his way into early retirement. This curmudgeonly malcontent treats his rogue agent underlings with the same respect he does any semblance of personal appearance, whilst embracing every onerous habit without shame.

However, the question is not whether this Oscar-winning actor can deliver in this espionage dramedy, but what else Slow Horses has to offer undecided audiences yet to make a move over to Apple's streaming service.

The last time Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman appeared together on screen, they portrayed World War II’s ultimate power couple in The Darkest Hour. As Clemmie and Winston Churchill, this Joe Wright-directed Oscar darling, saw Gary Oldman garner plaudits aplenty entrenched beneath seamless prosthetics.

Either raging in war rooms or ingesting enough cigar smoke to give himself genuine health problems, that performance anointed him into the Oscar fraternity for Best Actor. However, all that scenery-chewing and brooding triple-chinned menace would have meant nothing without Clemmie.

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That is what provided The Darkest Hour with its beating heart, bringing forth an equally magnetic supporting role in the process. One that was sadly overlooked when it came to awards season in 2018.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)
Kristin Scott Thomas in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)

Their dynamic in Slow Horses is no less engaging, even if they now reside on different sides of an MI5 divide. As Diana Taverner, Scott Thomas is a perfect counterpoint to Jackson Lamb’s sarcastically laid back demeanour.

Ambitiously reckless in her need for recognition, The English Patient star adds layers of vulnerability beneath that cold-blooded façade, which add rare hints at humanity. However, with access to a coterie of government approved pit bulls armed to the teeth, any empathy this might engender is quickly undermined, making this character an interesting conflict of contradictions.

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Over at the cuttingly coined Slough House, Jackson Lamb doles out put downs, petulance and scathing reality checks to his assembled charges, in between alarming bouts of flatulence. Amongst this collection of unsavoury MI5 wannabes is recent recruit Cartwright. Played with dogged determination by Jack Lowden, known for turns in Capone and Dunkirk amongst others, it is his dynamic with Lamb that carries this series.

Olivia Cooke and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)
Olivia Cooke and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)

Alongside him is Olivia Cooke as Sid Baker, soon to be seen in Game of Thrones prequel House of Dragons, who proves more than a match for Cartwright’s impetuous secret agent shenanigans. However, beyond the presence of two heavyweight actors and an excellent ensemble cast, Slow Horses proves to be both thought provoking and funny.

Adapted by Will Smith, who worked on The Thick of It as well as Veep, these characters come to life through a combination of savagely comedic dialogue and relatable back story. Personal tragedy, professional secrets and an indifferent team dynamic gives Slow Horses bite and backbone.

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Cool character introductions and slick action sequences, make way for introspective flashbacks and contemplative moments of clarity. That these moments are then undercut dramatically by a racially charged kidnapping sub-plot, bitingly dark humour and an indifferently unwashed anti-hero strikes a perfect balance.

Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)
Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)

In part this feels like a homage to Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, in which Robbie Coltrane gave audiences the epitome of underdog indifference as Fitz. There is something repulsively endearing about Jackson Lamb, which recalls that classic series, even if Slow Horses has more obvious humour and softer edges.

Although there may be some who consider the involvement of both Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jonathan Pryce as a waste of talent here, it is maybe better to look at this show as an ensemble effort.

Slow Horses might not reinvent the wheel, but it does give audiences a genuinely great actor breathing life into a unique literary creation. One that Gary Oldman is clearly having tremendous fun dragging off the page.

Jonathan Pryce in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)
Jonathan Pryce in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+)

Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas has delivered a character of depth in Diana Taverner, that has more to offer this story than merely a conflicting agenda. There is a humanity buried beneath that Teflon coating, which reflects in those scenes they share together.

This is not two acclaimed actors on cruise control phoning in a role for money, but instead, performances which elevate this Apple original into a genuinely slick piece of entertaining espionage.

However, whether or not this translates into a new influx of Apple advocates, only time will tell.

Slow Horses series will premiere on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly, every Friday.

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