If we ever do get a female James Bond, what would she be like? The answer – or at least, one answer – can be found in Tell Me Who I Am, a look at the conflicts that shaped Europe in the 20th century as seen through the eyes and actions of a Spanish socialite turned spy. She might not be taking down a supervillain in a secret volcano base, but this look at the no-nonsense side of international espionage is as gritty, as epic, and sometimes as glamorous as any 007 adventure.
The story begins in Madrid in 1998 (in a nice twist, the “present day” scenes are in black & white, while the past is in vivid colour). A man opens a package at his desk – it’s a manuscript, and immediately we’re plunged into the life of Amelia Garayoa (Irene Escolar) circa 1934.
She’s in her early 20s, middle-class, and about to be married to Santiago (Pablo Derqui) whose family money and connections can save her father’s Berlin factory. Unfortunately for Santiago, she soon falls under the spell of French journalist and communist revolutionary Pierre (Oriol Pla). The Spanish Civil War is brewing, Madrid is a hotbed of socialist ideas, and Amelia’s commitment to them will prove to be deeper than most.
It turns out that the man reading the manuscript is Javier, Amelia’s son. He never knew his mother; after giving birth to him, she fled her forced marriage, travelling with Pierre to Buenos Aires out of a mixture of love and desire to do more with her life. She definitely achieved that: the series that follows is set across five decades and in nine countries, following Amelia as she criss-crosses the globe, risking her life as a spy during World War II and its aftermath.
Based on a best-selling 2010 novel by Julia Navarro, Tell Me Who I Am is one of the most ambitious series filmed in Spain. Featuring 300 shooting locations across Spain and Budapest, with 150 characters and more than 3,000 extras – all of which you need when your script is based on a book that runs to more than 1,200 pages – it’s an epic in every sense of the word.
That includes the languages spoken: series creator and showrunner José Manuel Lorenzo was determined to take a natural approach to the many languages Amelia would come in contact with, so while over half the series is in Spanish, the other half includes English, French, German, Russian, Italian, Polish and Portuguese.
Despite its massive scope, the story remains tightly focused on Amelia; people come in and out of her life, but always it’s her journey we’re following. She’s no passive observer of history either. While her circumstances are constantly in flux, her desire to help people remains constant right from the beginning. She married Santiago to help her father, then when she realises the wider injustices in the world, she can’t help but try to address them. But becoming a spy is no part-time job; over the course of the series her youthful idealism crashes up hard against the realities of the life she’s chosen.
Her new life in Buenos Aires rapidly takes a darker twist as Pierre turns out to be not quite what he seems. To be honest, he’s nothing like what he seems, apart from the whole handsome revolutionary thing, and their relationship – which also was not what it seemed – leaves her floundering. She meets Italian opera diva Carla Alessandrini (Maria Pia Calzone), who takes her under her wing. She also meets German officer and doctor Max Von Schumann (Pierre Kiwitt), who’s clearly keen to take matters further – until he’s ordered to return to Nazi Germany (don’t worry, he’ll be back).
Soon Pierre and Amelia are in the USSR, even as Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War puts her family at risk. What follows will see Amelia working for British Intelligence during World War II (she’s doesn’t get a 00 classification, sad to say), operating in Nazi-occupied Poland and Italy on a string of dangerous missions involving smuggling, sabotage… and sometimes seduction.
Even when the war finally ends, her work isn’t over. Her dreams of settling down to a quiet life in Germany are dashed by the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall. It seems that when you’re a spy, you’re a spy for life – but it’s an amazing life to watch.
Tell Me Who I Am is now streaming at SBS On Demand.