[This is a review of The Night Manager series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
At the time of its publication in 1993, The Night Manager was one of John le Carré’s first post-Cold War novels. Like the protagonist of another book published three decades prior, le Carré was poised to come in from the cold. For an author who had written some of the best spy thrillers set in and around that decades-long escalation of tensions, it was a test to see whether or not the incredibly dense tales of espionage and moral uncertainty he had become so well known for crafting could thrive without the looming specter of the Soviet Union, without The Circus, Control, George Smiley, and Karla. As it turned out, with The Night Manager and many novels he’s published since, like The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, and A Most Wanted Man (all of which have been adapted into feature films), there was still plenty of espionage to go around.
The ability of le Carré to adapt his stories to better fit the changing world, but still have them feel rich with the basic elements that make the spy genre so appealing and worth going back to time and time again is reflected in subtle ways throughout the TV adaptation of The Night Manager. The six part miniseries – which aired already on the BBC – written by David Farr and with every episode directed by Susanne Bier, tells the story of Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) a former British soldier and titular night manager of an Egyptian hotel and his dealings with “the worst man in the world” Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). The updates include more than just smart phones and SIM cards, though; they create a real sense of place, a lived-in (or lived-through quality) that balances out the exorbitant wealth and almost Bond–like level of luxury enjoyed by Roper and depicted in the miniseries’ sumptuous settings.
Comparisons to James Bond will be readily apparent to anyone watching – especially now that Hiddleston’s name has begun to be volleyed around as a possible successor to Daniel Craig. They are made even more prevalent in the series’ opulent cinematography depicting its beautiful settings, the well-tailored costumes, and the helicopters flying to remote hotels in the Swiss Alps. But The Night Manager takes its characters down a less action-packed path, one that is decidedly more reserved, almost detached at times, using its depiction of extreme wealth and the influence it can buy to tell a contemporary cautionary tale. The impact of that wealth and influence is immediately felt as the series opens up in 2011 Cairo, with Pine walking streets teaming with people and alive with the revolutionary din of the Arab Spring. But the allure of progression is quickly spoiled when a young woman named Sophie (Aure Atika) hands Pine proof that Roper is selling arms to a criminal organization, setting the plot in motion and ensuring that the erstwhile soldier is compelled to act. Though Pine himself labels his concern and his action as motivated by a humanitarian responsibility, he finds himself wrapped up in an attraction to Sophie that eventually turns tragic and, four years later, spurs him to action once more when his path crosses with Roper’s once more.
The first hour establishes the ideas and themes central to the story, while also pointing out just how easily someone like Pine can be seduced by the trappings of extreme wealth, even while he’s working against its agents – i.e., Roper and his cohort that includes his coarse right-hand man Corkoran (Tom Hollander) and his statuesque girlfriend Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). Even though Roper only appears for a short time during the latter half of the series opener, there’s a palpable sense of attraction and intrigue shared between the two men. Having already been fitted with the label of “worst man in the world,” Roper reveals himself to be an even more dangerous criminal, one who hides his corruption behind transparent philanthropy and failing that, uses his money to influence lawmakers – something Pine’s soon-to-be handler Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) knows all too well.
Farr’s sometimes-stolid adaptation, along with Biers’ impeccable direction, offers an intriguing first episode that, although it spends the vast majority of its time establishing Pine’s motivations, manages to create a distinct impression of his adversary despite keeping him off-screen for the most part. The effect, then, is that when Roper finally arrives, Laurie can settle into his effortless depiction of the charming, seductive arms dealer, making the awkward first encounter between him and Pine a subtle but effective power play that forms the inklings of a critical bond when he praises the would-be spy/hotel manager for not putting out a cigarette in front of a paying customer. That interaction underlines much of what’s to come as well as the story’s interest in exploring issues of class and authority all while still adhering to the classic tenets of a tale from le Carré.
The Night Manager isn’t going to be for those who seek the thrills and massive set pieces of a James Bond film, but it will appeal to those who like to linger over a pot of slowly simmering tension a la The Americans. But whereas that show has gradually eschewed the trappings of the genre in favor of finding spectacle in its domestic drama, this adaptation of le Carré’s novel gradually goes the other direction, expertly leaning into the usual trimmings and using them to construct a compelling spy-thriller.
The Night Manager continues next Tuesday @10pm on AMC.
Photos: Des Willie/ The Ink Factory/ AMC