Early in “The Night Manager,” Susanne Bier’s miniseries adapted from John le Carre’s 1993 novel of the same name, the titular night manager at a lavish Egyptian hotel is asked how he came to the role (by, of course, a mysterious woman with a seductive foreign accent).
Sophie (Aure Atika): “Have you always been the night manager?”
Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston): “It’s my profession, yes.”
“You chose it?”
“I think it chose me.”
“It’s a shame. You look fine by daylight.”
And indeed, he does, as does the rest of this fine ensemble cast all operating in top form. It’s in getting under their skin and grasping their motivations where the otherwise flawless drama hits a minor snag. In descending order of dimensionality, Hugh Laurie plays the mouse to Hiddleston’s cat, portraying the wealthy humanitarian/global arms dealer Richard Roper with a diabolically restrained bit of smarm. Olivia Colman, a splendid British actress best known for “Broadchurch,” shines intensely as MI6 intelligence officer Angela Burr, who will let nothing — not even her own pregnancy — stop her from capturing Roper. Elizabeth Debicki is the target’s girlfriend, Jed Marshall, a woman with a few secrets up her sleeve that may or may not be part of her own plan for the corrupt philanthropist. Finally, there’s Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, an ex-army man who rightfully gets top billing in the show, yet is still inexplicably kept at arm’s length.
The story, told in an effectively linear fashion yet itching for more of the few time jumps utilized in the first two episodes, gives Pine plenty of opportunities for development. We see his main motivation unfold within the first 15 minutes, but he’s hardly a man who makes the decisions he does because of a single reason. Lines are dropped about his deceased father, how his time in the service didn’t meet his expectations and why he remains loyal to his home country of Britain. But rarely does the script from David Farr dig past those teasing glimpses of a backstory. Instead, Bier relies on Hiddleston to carry Pine from start to finish, which he does with an admirable determination and aptly unbreakable constitution.
We’ve seen spy shows and movies call on their agents to act like actors, altering mind and body to fool a target into believing they’re someone else, and “The Night Manager” asks something similar of Pine. Perhaps Hiddleston’s highest marks — and he deserves many — should be given for this transition, as he manages to show us exactly what his character is called upon to do without making it such a perfect transformation that the audience is left thinking, “Well, of course he could do that. He’s Tom Hiddleston!” There is such an incredible amount of nuance to Hiddleston’s role that it speaks to how little we really know about Pine — the triumph of an actor going above and beyond what’s found in the script.
The same praise could be bestowed upon Laurie without the detracting from his scripted lines (including, rather notably, a bookend of sorts to Robert Duvall’s classic line from “Apocalypse Now”: “Nothing quite as pretty as napalm at night”). Roper, a classic Bond villain in a le Carre story, is given some of his best backstory while he’s offscreen — a riveting monologue from Colman could win her an Emmy, and she’s telling us as much about Roper as she is her own character — but the former “House” star (and current “Veep” MVP) wears every inch of Roper’s distinct attitude on his face. His expressions (and others) are often shown in an extreme close-up, lending specificity to each subtle movement. Laurie may be playing into his given traits or he may be making them up on his own, right there on the spot. Either way, it’s as powerful a turn as any of his previous work, deserving of all the accolades.
Yet somehow it’s Colman who really walks away with “The Night Manager.” It could be that her three big scenes — all of which involve hefty monologues delivered in various, volatile emotional states — are juicier than any given to the male leads. It could be that Colman’s is a face relatively unknown to American audiences who haven’t scoured the BBC (or Internet) for “Broadchurch” or “Peep Show” (among others), and thus is more of a surprise than her U.S.-established co-stars. Or it could just be that “The Lobster” hasn’t come out yet. No matter the reason, there’s no denying her immense talent; talent which should be rewarded come this year’s Emmys.
Be it night or day, it’s clear why these fine talents were chosen — along with a very strong supporting turn from Tom Hollander, who seemingly carries over his sharp wit and biting tongue from “In the Loop” to a more vicious, equally hilarious character here. Laurie, who’s been wanting to tell this story since he was young enough to play the title character instead of his antagonist, may have been better off getting it made back then. Setting aside the possibility of that actually getting done as well as the flawless production as is — credit to Bier for crafting such beautiful shots awash with blues and browns, as well as steering what could have been a plot-heavy story toward the heart — “The Night Manager” would have played better before its story became predictable.
The production and performances really do deserve such adulation, but the miniseries itself feels like a rather by-the-book spy story — which, notably, it is; an acknowledgment that means even more when you consider the author of said book is John le Carre. In just over a decade, we’ve seen three impeccable adaptations of the top-notch novelist’s work: “The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man.” “The Night Manager” would rank last on a list that, admittedly, just about any fan of the genre would happily marathon. There’s no denying that Le Carre set the mold for spy stories, but now that mold needs to be broken, rather than recast with the finest materials.
For more from AMC, watch the trailer for “Preacher” below: