Reader, you find your humble reviewer in a state of some agony. Mistakenly under the impression I was “lucky” to be among the chosen few getting a sneak preview of the 6-part John Le Carré adaptation “The Night Manager,” directed by Susanne Bier, I fear I now have to suggest that the screening was part of some malicious torture plan. I have as acute a case of cliffhanger angst as has been recorded, and I don’t get even temporary relief until three weeks from Sunday. The utter moreishness of this instantly terrific, thoroughly escapist show may be its biggest issue: with the 6 hour-long episodes airing weekly on Sundays starting this weekend, on BBC1 in the U.K. (and in April on AMC in the U.S.), the only craving this smart, glamorous, knotty thriller can’t satisfy is the urgent desire to binge.
For now, though, I can say that even the partial glimpse I’ve had of the first two episodes seems like the complete package: pacy as a whippet, sleek as one too, featuring top-tier filmmaking (Bier is back with a bullet after the misfire of “Serena“) and crackling performances from a stellar cast. And I’ll be careful about spoilers, but suffice to say that the very strong, more self-contained first episode is if anything surpassed by the second, which is where we see just where the rest of the show is heading. With the busy, fast-paced, plot-driven opener essentially acting as a prologue, the second installment introduces new levels to the characterization of all the principals, and suggests the mini-series overall will be as much about identity, wildly spinning moral compasses, and just how much a noble end can justify the ruthless means employed to achieve it, as it will be about the high-concept spy-jinks.
After crisp, Bond-esque opening title graphics, “The Night Manager” begins in Cairo in 2011, around the time President Hosni Mubarak resigns to much general rejoicing: a foundational moment for the Arab Spring. Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), to the admiration and dismay of his colleagues, walks calmly through a sea of protestors and riot police to get to the luxury hotel where he works. It’s a nice character introduction for him, establishing his perhaps reckless self-confidence, and also his slight aloofness. His unflappability under pressure is reinforced by the coolly professional way he deals with panicking guests and tearbomb attacks alike. Hiddleston also, no surprise, looks heart-meltingly handsome throughout — and that is not a shallow observation (well, not only); it’s a necessary attribute for Pine, who even in just these two episodes has several women fall for him, and a couple of sex scenes. This is not a role for a dowdy man.
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But Pine is almost matched in the elegant sangfroid department by hotel guest Sophie (Aure Atika), the impossibly alluring kept-woman of Freddie Hamid (David Avery), a violent and ruthless member of an enormously powerful Egyptian family. Sophie has stolen some documents that prove Hamid’s about to sign a massive arms deal with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) a billionaire magnate who presents a public image of philanthropy while being, in Sophie’s words “the worst man in the world.” She makes a calculated gamble and gives Pine a copy of the documents to keep in case anything happens to her. Ex-soldier Pine, however, is spurred by conscience to send them over to his friend at the British Embassy from where they quickly end up on the desk of Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), a somewhat renegade intelligence officer on a years-long mission to bring Roper down from her shabby London office where neither the heating nor the elevator works.
Things unravel quickly. The arms deal is suddenly terminated, indicating Roper knows about the leak and that Sophie is now a marked woman. Pine, feeling responsible for her newly imperiled situation as well as attracted to her, spirits her away and…well, although the consequences of his act of conscience are pretty clearly foreshadowed from the start, let’s skip specifics. Pine does eventually meet Roper years later, in a hotel in the Swiss Alps, when by chance he and his entourage, including resourceful lieutenant Corcoran (Tom Hollander) and American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) come for the night, causing Pine to secretly get back in contact with Burr.
As you might have gathered from all that, David Farr‘s script for “The Night Manager” is not really the kind of real-world, grittily authentic contemporary Le Carré adaptation we might have expected: it is closer in spirit to Craig-era Bond, with maybe a dash of Highsmithian sunshine noir (Pine’s chameleonic personality certainly has echoes of Tom Ripley), than it is to “A Most Wanted Man.” And while DP Michael Snyman‘s photography is certainly rich and the considerable expense all up there on screen, it’s not filmic in the way that Tomas Alfredson‘s masterful, melancholic “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the best aspects of “The Night Manager” in fact is that though I can testify that it looks great on the big screen, it is not afraid to be an almost old-fashioned TV show — that is, to glory in its increasingly pulpy plotting and to place sheer entertainment value (beautiful people in exotic locales doing dastardly things) above any kind of educational or philosophical bent. It’s all surface, and knows it, but what a surface.
That said, as I mentioned, episode 2 starts to complicate a lot of the assumptions we made in episode 1. Jed (played by the willowy Debicki, officially the World’s Longest Actress) is revealed to be a lot more than simply the careless, unthinking arm-candy she first seems to be. Pine’s veneer of calm, even obsequious charm vanishes as he assumes a new role, or four. Hollander’s initially worrisomely portrayed gay character gets to largely lay those worries to rest by delivering Corcoran’s enjoyably spiky dialogue with such relish — I was particularly fond of his purred threat “I will hang you upside down by those beautiful ankles until the truth falls out of you… by gravity” and his admonition to a lackey to “piss off out” and then “piss off back in here again.” Laurie’s Roper benefits from a little humanizing, even though his main role is clearly that of a more-or-less cat-stroking arch villain. And special note again has to go to Olivia Colman whose uncompromising, brilliant-yet-beautifully-sensible Angela Burr (a great decision to make this character a woman, when it’s a man in the book, by the way) grounds even the most credulity-defying twists with deft, witty, drizzly details like her Northern England accent and her tupperware of cookies. She might be the best version of this character since Frances McDormand in “Fargo.”
The greatest kudos, though, have to go to Hiddleston, on major-movie-star form here, and Bier. Aside from a fleeting and unnecessary flashback/daydream moment that explains what a character is thinking when it’s patently obvious, and a couple of slightly inelegant time transitions, her swift and sure direction of Farr’s elegantly condensed and updated screenplay is a delight. She almost always knows exactly what we want to be looking at, and just how much we need to see to understand the complicated but not particularly complex plot. And as lavish as it clearly is, Bier has no illusions that she’s making great art here, or even auteur TV; “The Night Manager” doesn’t want to be “Top of the Lake” or “True Detective.” Instead Bier delivers a pacy, heady cocktail of a show, garnishes it with delicious performances and serves it to us straight-up: not shaken, not stirred, just perfectly mixed, a little intoxicating and highly addictive.
Episode 1 [B+/A-]
Episode 2 [A-]