The Night Manager (Dir. Susanne Bier, 2016):
For those desiring a smidge of realism in their spy stories, John le Carré has long been the corrective to the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne. You don’t pick up a le Carré novel to read about men of action, even though such men do exist in his world — typically, they’re the ones hung out to dry by the spymasters who are the real string-pullers. Heavy on labyrinthine plotting and intellectual acrobatics, his tales are worlds away from mainstream spy cinema, which concerns itself with government spooks who act like glorified stuntmen, and stories which get as complicated as “nab the secret doodad before the bad guys.” Still, something about le Carré’s work has never quite gone out of style with filmmakers. Maybe it’s the sheer gamesmanship on display, so closely mirroring the smoke-and-mirrors of any movie production, or perhaps it’s his stories’ acknowledgment that no one who dirties their hands ever gets clean, which matches our eternal cynicism about our nations and corporations.
Since the Cold War came to a crashing halt, le Carre’s plots have settled into a familiar groove: a civilian of questionable compunctions and certain skills is drawn into the espionage game, with reliably disastrous results for all parties involved. Writer David Farr’s six-episode miniseries adaptation of The Night Manager, le Carré’s first post-Cold War opus, follows the outlines of this template, but he and director Susanne Bier have different aims in mind. Other recent cinematic adaptations like A Most Wanted Man and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have doggedly clung to le Carré ‘s depiction of a gray world inhabited by monkish schemers deliberating over their moves like chessmasters, with hapless humans standing in for pawns. This time around, the filmmakers want us to have a little more fun. Most surprising of all, we’re meant to buy into an honest-to-goodness hero: Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a British Army vet who spends his days concierge-ing about in swank hotels. Like Lawrence of Arabia (whose memoirs occupy a prominent place on his bookshelf), Pine is a man of talents but no practical way to utilize them, save for keeping a cool head for the high-paying customers in global flashpoints such as Cairo at the height of its Arab Spring.
Pine’s routine gets a shake-up when Sophie (Aure Atika), the comely mistress of a Egyptian kingpin, approaches him with some classified arms trade documents that point the finger squarely at Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), the seemingly benevolent CEO of a multinational manufacturing firm. Sophie provides the Cliff’s Notes version: “He’s the worst man in the world.” Fueled by chivalry and lust, Pine forwards the documents to the British embassy, and they eventually find their way to frumpy Secret Service operator Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), who has been tracking Roper for years despite the studied indifference of her superiors. When Pine’s dalliance with Sophie ends in tragedy, Burr seizes on his guilt and desire to do some good to draft him as an off-the-books agent. “There is half a psychopath lurking in there, Jonathan,” she exhorts him. “I want you to find him and stick to him.” Pine’s assignment: Infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and find enough evidence to nail him for good.
“Becoming a man is realizing it’s all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness… now that’s freedom.”
So far, so le Carré. But instead of the standard subdued approach, Bier openly courts comparisons with nothing less than the James Bond films (indeed, she’s thrown her hat into the ring to be a future Bond film director). As Pine’s pursuit of Roper takes him from Cairo to the Swiss Alps, Mallorca, and Turkey, Bier luxuriates in the travelogue sweep and sun-drenched sexiness that used to be the sole domain of Ian Fleming. These characters aren’t just ruthless — they’re immaculately tanned and tailored, to boot. Laurie’s Roper has an island getaway befitting of a Bond villain, and indeed, he’s the best Bond villain of the past four decades: a charismatic scowl glued to his face, witty and rotten to the core, he makes for a delightfully venal antagonist. The series’ score by Victor Reyes, packed with singing strings and ominous contrapuntal horns, is a clear nod towards John Barry‘s work. Even the title sequence, with its cheeky imagery of cluster bombs arcing into the shape of a pearl necklace and tea sets morphing into Gatling guns, is out of the 007 playbook.
Perhaps we can tie all this Bond-osity directly to Hiddleston. Not surprisingly, he’s the oddsmakers’ favorite to become the next Bond based on his performance, which seems like nothing less than an audition for 007. No monkish intellectualism here — like Her Majesty’s favorite secret servant, he gets to bed several women through the course of the narrative (but with more “No please, I can’t — oh all right, then” sensitivity), and he’s completely at ease chatting up the locals in the native tongue, or ordering a martini in a casino. Of course, there’s also a distressed damsel in the form of Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), Roper’s kept woman (“I went to New York to buy a painting, came back with her,” Roper gloats). While her backstory is boilerplate, Bier allows her enough humanity to make her more than a token plot device. More memorable is Roper’s right-hand man Corky (Tom Hollander). An alcoholic homosexual who is equally as jealous of Pine as he is protective of his boss, his character is about as retrograde as it gets, but Hollander’s performance, all brusque, bitter menace, stands out. Colman comes off the best, which is no surprise given her CV, which includes Broadchurch. Even though Burr in the Night Manager novel is a man, she’s as good as anyone since Alec Guinness in playing the classic le Carre male protagonist: the dyspeptic, underappreciated middle manager afflicted with a conscience, who can strategize with the best of them. For all the series’ emphasis on luxe trapings and glamorous people staring each other down, its standout moment comes when the shabby-looking, very pregnant Burr rifles through a man’s hotel room while a burly thug fast approaches.
For its first few episodes, The Night Manager engrosses: Bier works up a fine mood of danger and intrigue, and Hiddleston’s initial scenes with Laurie, the two men trading icy bonhommie, crackle with tension. Interspersed with this is juicy passages back in le Carré’s happy hunting ground of dreary old London, where Burr faces off against moles and bureaucrats within the Secret Service hierarchy. Times may change, but le Carré’s worldview remains the same: the worst atrocities are those committed with clenched smiles, inside burnished government offices. Where it all starts to go wrong is when Pine worms his way into Roper’s gang, which mirrors the novel’s major flaw: Why would Roper, a paranoiac with airtight security, allow a complete stranger into his operations, and then not immediately distrust the stranger as soon as shit starts hitting the fan? The Night Manager might be a riff on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and even the Bond film Licence to Kill, but for the central deception at the heart of it to work, one must take time to show the con in action: the ferreting out of an opponent’s weaknesses, suspicions ignited and deflected, the combination of sweat and smarts needed to see things though. Bier and Farr have neither the rigor or interest to get into all that, so instead we have Pine and Roper pal-ing around in silk shirts and tailored jackets, and within a couple of episodes Pine is Roper’s trusted lynchpin for his biggest arms deal yet. You’ll find more plausibility in the plot of Moonraker.
Once we lose our suspension of disbelief, the rest of the series falls apart like a house of cards. We’re meant to see Roper and Pine as two sides of the same coin, both men capable of duplicity to get what they want, but can we buy Hiddleston’s Pine as a slippery counter-agent? As a reluctant romantic hero, Hiddleston gives good smolder, but little in his performance suggests the “psychopath” that Burr sees in him — not that the script affords him many opportunities to be cruel or crafty. While he may have the breeding of a James Bond, he’s too puppy-ish to convince as a hard case, and for the duration of The Night Manager, he ping-pongs between two modes: pensive and ingratiating. Matched up against a heavyweight like Laurie, he’s strictly bantamweight. Bier tends to be clunky with plot, and such is the case with this series, as the story frays the longer it goes, the villains behaving more and more like idiots. For a while you might think that there’s a twist coming, that Pine is being played as much as Roper, and indeed, in le Carré’s novel (spoiler alert), the hunter and the hunted exchange roles at a critical moment. No such luck with this adaptation though, as everything is wrapped into a neat little bow. It turns out that Roper is as clueless and careless as he seems to be, villains are properly foiled, our heroes get a good measure of justice and revenge, and everything winds down to a satisfactory ending which should go over well with general audiences, but is antithetical to the point of a le Carré novel. It should surprise no one that the original conclusion of The Night Manager is far more Pyrrhic in nature: while a few innocents may be spared, evil marches on unabated, and those in the corridors of power who attempt to fight it end up crushed under the boot of political expediency. Bier’s The Night Manager is too busy getting high on the fumes of its own glamour to get anywhere near that dirty, and the result is even less sincere than a Bond film. At least 007 has the good grace to treat everything like a lark; The Night Manager pretends to be as intelligent and sophisticated as the finely fitted suits its characters wear, in the hopes that you won’t notice the absurdity underneath.