Friday, April 7, 2017

"The Night Manager" is an Acting Showcase

"The Night Manager" is based on a 1993 John le Carré espionage novel, which talented people tried to turn into a film a few times, but was probably always best suited for a limited series format. And the BBC and AMC have certainly turned their six-hour adaptation into a high class affair, starring big name actors, with a great director, and a globetrotting production. However, I was a little surprised at how generic it felt.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Jonathan Pine, the night manage of the Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo. He becomes involved with a woman named Sophie (Aure Atika), who he helps to pass along information to British intelligence regarding an illegal arms deal. One of the major parties involves is business mogul Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie), the "worst man in the world." Several years later, Pine and Roper cross paths again. Pine lets himself be recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), an intelligence operative, to infiltrate Roper's operations and get to know his inner circle. These include "Sandy" Langbourne (Alistair Petrie) and his wife Caroline (Natasha Little), Roper's best friend Major "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Hollander), and Roper's deeply unhappy girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Burr, meanwhile, has to contend with her operations being threatened and undercut by other parties in the government who are in bed with Roper. However, she does have an ally in Joel Steadman (David Harewood), a member of the US intelligence community.

I wonder if it's because there have been so many spy movies in the same vein lately, or if "The Night Manager" just isn't as thematically dark as some of the other le Carré books, but there's much less of the murk and moral ambiguity here than what I usually associate with his work. This feels more like a modern Bond or "Mission Impossible" movie sans the fight scenes and gadgets. Hiddleston's Pine, despite his character's existential funk, is a fairly straightforward good guy, while Laurie's Roper is a baddie in almost every respect. The internal politicking of the intelligence organizations is more than familiar, and the villain's sexy girlfriend who falls for the hero is positively cliché. Not to mention the exotic locales, the opulent lifestyle of Roper, and the neat and tidy ending.

Of course, in the right hands this isn't a bad thing at all. Director Susanne Bier is an excellent fit for the material, being a veteran of so many torrid dramas, and her leading men play a very good game of cat and mouse. Hiddleston's identity-juggling is compelling and engrossing, but it's Hugh Laurie who dominates the series, despite not really getting in on the action until the second episode. I haven't seen Laurie in much since "House" went off the air, and I've missed his presence. Thanks to him, Dickie Roper is charming, wryly funny, and absolutely terrifying. He's never gets remotely physical with anyone, and yet he's a walking threat of violence. Every scene where he and Hiddleston interact is terrifically fun, even when they're not confronting each other directly.

The series is a great showcase for the talents of the ensemble, and all the familiar little bits of spy thriller business go down much easier for it. Tom Hollander adds new dimensions to the standard suspicious henchman. Elizabeth Debicki, in the most grounded role I've seen her in to date, is perfectly lovable as Jed. And then there's Olivia Colman, whose bulldogged Angela Burr spends the last few episodes heavily pregnant, but hardly loses a step. It's been great seeing Colman rise in prominence these last few years, and the bureaucratic travails of no-nonsense Burr makes a wonderful counterpoint to the sexier spy shenanigans being played out by Hiddleston and Laurie. I wouldn't have minded at all if the whole series was about her.

I came away from "The Night Manager" impressed with everyone involved, but a little unsatisfied. Maybe it's because I've been watching "The Americans" lately (review forthcoming), and the straightforward plotting of "The Night Manager" felt overly familiar by comparison. As an eager consumer of prestige television, this is certainly worth a watch, but it would have made a far greater impact if it had come out a decade ago, before the glut of recent spy media.


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