The Night Manager
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, David Harewood and Hugh Laurie.
Night manager of a wealthy hotel in Cairo, charming ex-Special Forces veteran Jonathan Pine is unable to prevent the murder of a woman connected to the secret arms dealings of British philanthropist Richard Roper, a man Pine swears to bring down…
Have you ever wondered what a small-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond may look like? If the answer is yes, then look no further than The Night Manager, because it might well be as close as the BBC have ever got.
Adapted from the 1993 novel by the grand master of spy fiction, John le Carre, The Night Manager–which begins on AMC in the US next Tuesday the 19th–very quickly expands beyond the rather bland title. That’s very much the point, almost a misdirection from le Carre, and the jumping off point to introduce the journey of Jonathan Pine, the titular hotel manager, who swiftly becomes deeply involved in the very murky yet equally very glamorous world of global arms dealing. The novel was le Carre’s first post-Cold War effort, and over the last two decades at least two film companies have tried and failed to compress the narrative into a two-hour movie. Here director Susanne Bier and writer David Farr (luminaries in their own right in the worlds of film and the RSC respectively) manage successfully to give the source material its due, give it room to breathe, and make the necessary updates and tweaks to the characters and story so they can exist in a relevant, post 9/11, modern political world. This is very much in the vein of modern 007; suave, sophisticated, sexy and fun while often being cold as ice.
Tom Hiddleston immediately gives proceedings not just that shot of star power but educated glamour as Pine; even for his years, the man has a classic British gravitas along the lines of peers such as Benedict Cumberbatch—who also understands the power of skipping back to TV for the purposes of a good story—and he carries episode one which takes place primarily in Cairo as we’re introduced to Pine’s very ordered, chic world of North African gloss, only to find it punctuated by the bloodied brutality of power and the secrets men strive to hide. Conversely, the grim and dour world of British spy craft Olivia Colman’s Angela Burr (originally a man, Leonard Burr, in the source material) back in London inhabits is a striking contrast to the Egyptian and later Swiss environs the narrative takes us. One could argue episode one is structurally unsound, jumping ahead months and halfway across the world for a final act which swops the Arab Spring for snowy mountain peaks, but it places Pine on the same track as Hugh Laurie’s villain, Richard Roper, in necessary fashion, even if it makes you wait to see the man in question.
People sometimes forget just how great an actor Laurie is; still known perhaps as much for bumbling around in Blackadder in the UK as he is scolding medical professionals for years as Dr. House, Laurie can switch from affable to spiteful and deadly in a flash, and as episode two explores deeper into Roper’s life and established surroundings during a sojourn to dusky Mallorca, we see just how much of a villain the man is. Laurie’s skill—alongside strong writing from Farr—always manages to keep Roper calm and collected, seemingly one step ahead, so when we do get to see him exposed, or angry, or scared, it hits home with quite the punch. By episode three, after some fairly measured and perfunctory condensing of le Carre’s story that just about works (all the Devon stuff feels hugely truncated), Pine is where he needs to be and crucially, we start getting more of Hiddleston & Laurie together on-screen, which is frequently terrific; the former playing his part, charming and reliable and always with one eye on the bigger picture – the latter careful, suspicious and hopeful he can trust him. For the majority of the season, it’s a balancing act finely constructed and an engaging dance to watch.
Where le Carre always differed from Fleming is how he makes the espionage world a far less boy’s own fantasy world perpetuated by upper class villainy, and prefers to get right under the fingernails and into the dirt and grime of tradecraft. Though Pine may spend much of the six-part run in exotic locations attempting not to grow further involved with Elizabeth Debicki’s ‘arms dealer’s moll’ Jed, it’s Burr who must swim through the murk of internal and external politics, with forces within MI6 at River House who may or may not be on Roper’s payroll attempting to stall and steamroll her investigation into Roper’s activities. Colman is innately a great character actress and imbues Angela with a fierce Northern determination, bullishly fighting her way through an elitist, largely man’s world with only David Harewood’s slick CIA agent Joel for support. If not as beautifully filmed or tense as Pine’s voyage into Middle Eastern arms deals and shady corrupt criminals, it’s frequently no less entertaining to see play out.
The final three episodes switch gears to an extent, with Bier and Farr unafraid to edge into new locations and different territory to keep the wheels of narrative moving apace. Episodes four and five really begin to see Pine’s inveigling into Roper’s circle begin coming apart, as his dynamic with Debicki deepens dangerously, and Tom Hollander consistently steals the show as the embarrassingly creepy Corky—Roper’s long-term sidekick—who always remains the suspicious thorn in Pine’s side, building to painfully awkward scenes such as Corky drunkenly exploding at waiters in fine restaurants and Pine having to suavely repair the damage. Alongside the internal squabbles, Bier & Farr ensure Roper has an agenda, a master plan, and they switch his contacts from being Colombian drug lords in le Carre’s novel to being the far more current, relevant Arab businessmen with ties to Syrian upheaval, though the drama always manages to avoid succumbing to polemic and remains rooted far more into the tension of Pine’s secrets being discovered.
Episode six, the finale, naturally brings everything to a head, indeed brings everything full circle, and makes the conflict between Pine and Roper the central gambit. The conclusion is altered by necessity, and it won’t please everyone, but it feels by the credits rolling that the story has been told. It feels over. Subsequently it’s gratifying to hear both Hiddleston and Laurie categorically state there will not be a second season, that this is one and done. le Carre never wrote a sequel, so they don’t plan on inventing one of likely diminishing returns. That’s good. The Night Manager feels complete, and it’s refreshing that the BBC happily threw great resources, a talented cast of film and TV stars, and a strong writer/director team, and let them run free to deliver one of the classiest, most addictive TV shows in years.
Now what do we need to do to get that James Bond TV series?