A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
John le Carré earned his name as a writer by crafting what could be termed as the “anti-Bond” novels. There was little outright sexiness, no “Bond girl” (not that his novels aren’t largely male-dominated), and there were no outlandish action set pieces that would thrill but defy logic in equal measure. The name “le Carré” become synonymous with much darker pieces of espionage, where the authenticity seemed so germane it was as if someone had peeled back a curtain on real-life spies for us to take a peek at. le Carré is obsessed with the quietness of the espionage world, the shy glances and the little touches that comprise the most meaningful of movements before they’re gone. There’s a universality to that quietness of espionage and unlike changing Bond technologies and flashiness, the quietness is much more prone to malleable adaptations. The Night Manager fits that mold quite impressively, le Carré’s 1993 tale of the hunt for an international arms dealer transitioning into the Arab Spring of 2011 seamlessly. That setting is ripe for the dramatic tension that begins the series, that quiet sense of dread le Carré is so well known for. Each step is quiet, dogged by the harshly drawn juxtaposition between the protests in the streets and the largesse luxury of the Queen Nefertiti Hotel. Then the series leaves that fateful hotel lobby, but that reality always stays quietly in the background. The protests in Cairo that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak as the dictator of Egypt were dangerous to the aristocratic oligarchs who saw their heads next on the chopping block. Represented in the series by the Hamid family, their orders read like a fax sheet of horror: sarin and napalm are two of their requested items for shipment. Their display in a desert valley give an alarming, if overly dramatized, reality of what these casual dealings of the free market mean for the civilians who will gain no profit from them, only death.
The wars of the modern day and age give a much darker undercurrent to the series than perhaps was intended, although it is difficult to see how a story about a capitalist philanthropist whose source of income comes from killing civilians could really avoid darkness in the first place. War, in The Night Manager, is not the traditional conflict of the battlefield. It is a fuel for the conflict between those who see the horrors of war and seek to stop them and those who see the horrors of war and seek to profit from them. Angela Burr, arguably the true protagonist of the series, notes as much when she relates to her coworker and by extension the audience. During the early days of the First Gulf War, she saw firsthand the effects of a chemical attack upon children. Richard Roper, the aforementioned “worst man in the world”, saw the exact same thing she did. Angela was galvanized to stop chemical warfare. Roper was galvanized to do the exact opposite. Each dead child was like a commodity waiting to be sold on the stock market. When The Night Manager keeps this battle in focus, it’s riveting beyond almost anything else that has aired this year. It’s not the thing that most viewers are going to take away, which is unfortunate, but it’s the narrative thrust that gives this espionage thriller the intelligence that keeps it afloat even when the glossiness threatens to take over and indeed does in the series’s lesser moments. There is arguably a great deal of cynicism in le Carré’s work, the second strongest unifying thread in The Night Manager. Roper’s “work” doesn’t stand on its own, it’s aided and abetted by corrupt government officials in Western governments who stand to profit from further, continued turmoil in the Middle East. There’s a thin veil where that corruption is concerned, but the thinness of that veil isn’t a weakness. It’s a critical statement crucial to all of le Carré’s work, the thinness, the profiteering of not just individuals but of governments from inhumane warfare. After all, who is going to take the men and women working behind the veil down? More importantly, the apparatus largely is kept intact and one corrupt official simply takes place of another. That isn’t to say that the apparatus cannot be dismantled, but even the much happier television ending couldn’t endorse an optimism that unbridled without betraying the caution of le Carré’s narrative.
The Night Manager, however, is not without its weaknesses. The aforementioned Bond comparisons draw unfortunately close in this adaptation. Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as the titular night manager Jonathan Pine but when The Atlantic notes that The Night Manager is a fairly expensive James Bond audition reel, it’s often difficult to argue with that. Up until Angela coaxes Jonathan into her plan, the comparisons are mostly juxtapositional in an antagonistic fashion, but as soon as the series arrives on Majorca, it becomes a bit problematic until the climax revs up once more for the final two pieces. Not that there isn’t a problematic sequence or two in the first two installments (a sex scene in the pilot is significantly obnoxious), but there is a considerable degree of flashiness and outright sexiness for the middle part of the series that it often becomes bogged down in the “ooh, look how sexy this is” while it forgets that there’s an actual story that needs telling. The aforementioned sex scene in the pilot is problematic, evocative of every useless James Bond sex scene that only serves to remind the audience for the one hundredth time that this is a sexy man who indeed can have sex with any woman he wants. It’s frankly regressive. There is a piece where Roper’s plan is ultimately foiled and it leads to a significant question as to where the heart of the writing was in the relationship between Pine and Roper, arguably the most significant relationship in The Night Manager. It’s the one that theoretically provides the most outright dramatic meat and plot development, but it hinges crucially upon what each man believes of the other. That Roper wouldn’t see Pine as the potential informant is quite ridiculous, snapping that bond of germaneness that the best le Carré adaptations are known for. But the series doesn’t quite go that route. Hugh Laurie’s expressions and that bit of dialogue about Pine being a beauty point in a different direction, that Roper saw in Pine a younger version of himself and that created complications in a mind that was otherwise as shrewd as it was dark. That’s quite fine and Laurie himself suggested that there was another angle here, that Roper knew that his game couldn’t last for too long and he wanted to pick the man whom would bring him down. Naturally he went for the man in whom he saw himself. That’s a complex bit of characterization but frankly I’m not quite sure that the writing of the series was able to pull that feat off.
What The Night Manager pulls off with most aplomb is the direction and casting. Danish Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier handled the entirety of the project with stunning aplomb, confident in her staging and camerawork even during the sparse moments where the narrative doesn’t rise to the mark. Her usage of point-of-view shots is especially impressive. Hiddleston’s star turn is quite good, even if there is that ostensible blockage that this is the guy from The Avengers and might be the next Bond. He carries the quiet gravitas of ambiguity quite well, but Pine also requires an inherent ability to charm essentially anyone on the planet, which also is something that Hiddleston can do in his sleep. Laurie carries a different, sleazy sort of charm quite well, even as Roper’s war crimes continuing to peel off of him like a particularly awful onion. His bursts of violence are thus considering even more effective. Tom Hollander’s Corky is possibly the most complex of the characters in the series and there’s a particular moment in a café that is especially unsettling. Elizabeth Debicki is good as Jed and she makes the most of the sharper moments of characterizations that she is given, even if some of the writing for her at times felt a bit inconsistent. Tobias Menzies, who is everywhere and for good reason, exudes a calm, calculating demeanor that strikes at the heart of le Carré’s cynicism about government corruption. The standout in the cast, however, is Olivia Colman as Angela Burr. She is absolutely fantastic as the sharp, belittled, but steadfast intelligence chief who is being bombarded by every corner as corruption threatens to swallow her goal to take Roper down. Colman’s performance is simultaneously thoroughly endearing and energetic and if there were to be a return for this miniseries in some fashion, it ought to be centered around her. Certainly government corruption, war profiteering, and illegal arms trading aren’t going to quell at any moment in the near future and if this team decides to hire the night manager for another shift, we’ll be lying eagerly in wait.
Note: Colman herself became pregnant after getting the part but before filming but a quick conversation with director Susanne Bier, the production simply added Colman’s real-life pregnancy into the script. It ended up working quite well, adding another dimension into how many of Burr’s antagonists looked down upon her and dismissed her as an idealistic woman whose pregnancy seemed to make her harmless. But it also speaks to how important it is to have more women before and behind the camera. Kudos to Bier, Colman, and The Night Manager team for setting an example here.
Name: The Night Manager
Episode Titles: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 4, Episode 6
Suggested Episode Titles: The Night Manager, Jonathan Linden Quince, The Verisimilitude of Vanilla, An Angel of Death, The Elephant in the Desert, No! No! No!
Based on: The Night Manager by John le Carré
Executive Produced by: Susanne Bier, Alexei Boltho, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, Stephen Garrett, Tom Hiddleston, William D. Johnson, Hugh Laurie, John le Carré
Produced by: Rob Bullock
Screenplay by: David Farr
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Tobias Menzies, Elizabeth Debicki, Douglas Hodge, Antonio de la Torre
Music by: Victor Reyes
Edited by: Ben Lester
Cinematography: Michael Snyman
Production Company(s): The Ink Factory, BBC, AMC