Exciting, exotic, suitably (yet uncomfortably) close to reality, the BBC's latest foray into spy thriller territory pulls Le Carré into new, if not necessarily original, directions.
The Night ManagerAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Oliva Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debecki
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1
Air date: 2016-02-21
John Le Carré has often been displayed as an intelligent foil to the more outlandish and exotic spy novels of Ian Fleming -- even before the film industry transformed it into something truly ludicrous. Such an assessment is fair considering the reserved and contemplative nature of his narratives. However, one wouldn't be wrong to doubt it at times whilst watching this new adaptation of The Night Manager.
This isn't to say it features volcano lairs or preposterous gadgets, but the BBC has certainly hoped to harness an element of Fleming's glamour to pull in viewers who may be hesitant to watch a drama that seems so clearly tied to a geopolitical situation they're exhausted enough about from hearing in the news every day. Instead of the drained and detached locales of most Le Carré adaptations, they’ve opted for the lush, exciting hotels and peaks of Cairo and Zermatt, accompanied by the fitting grand orchestral score. The environments act not so much as camouflage under which drama flows, and more as melodramas in their own right, in which exciting new possibilities aren't just likely, but inevitable.
Not afraid to tap into the vein of male fantasy figures, it appears that another Fleming trope has been dropped fresh into the frame when Tom Hiddlestone’s Jonathan Pine enters bravely through the angered Arab Spring protesters. But within his performance lies the key element that holds the production back from embracing pure escapism. Whilst his quintessential English charm and crafted physique certainly don't stray far from convention, his reserved, delayed reactions -- and almost puppy-dog demeanour in times of stress, passion and despair -- help root the story in a character who feels flawed, yet essentially relatable in his clumsy yet virtuous ventures.
The plot is set in motion by such a blindly noble act: Pine leaks documents to a supposedly safe source to prevent the violent repression of the Arab Spring, foiling the plot, but at a high cost to his long-suffering guest/short-suffering lover Sophie (Samira) Alekan (Aure Atika). If there’s one character who suffers from the adaptations (and perhaps the novels) closer ties to Fleming, it's Atika's doomed damsel. Whilst tenderly believable as a trapped, lonely figure trying to alter her hopeless situation, here she's still defined completely by her relationship to men, as is Elizabeth Debicki's Jed; a character one could describe at this point as nothing more than "Hugh Laurie’s leggy blonde" (insert mandatory Flying Conchords reference).
I expect the current gender disparity to change in future episodes, but for now the writers have attempted to address it through the alteration of Le Carré’s Leonard Burr, to the altogether more pregnant and Olivia Colman-ish, Angela Burr. Representing the fusty, stuttering political mechanics of Whitehall, her scenes manage to provide the home front of the political fallout, providing valuable context to the events abroad, with minimal resort to extensive exposition.
Cleverly enough, this places her as the practical and grounded figure attempting to cool-headedly deal with the aftermath of Pine's foolhardy idealism; a role Colman handles comfortably, with a frugal and frustrated idealism of her own. The potential friction and exasperation that could lie ahead as she deals with the less grounded and reliable Pine is exciting to consider. Both joined in purpose, Burr's more aware of the larger picture that may be lost to the impulsive and vengeful night manager. Neither necessary fit the traditional tropes of the straight and hotshot partners, but the dynamic may end up straying closer to it than we might expect.
It feels odd to leave it so late to mention him, but it's perhaps fitting that Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) comes last in discussion. He exists more as a spectral presence in the narrative of this opener, appearing well into the episode’s final third, and presenting us with little glimpses of the cruel and calculating corporate monster that Laurie must've always wanted to eventually tackle once he was allowed to stop limping around hospitals. His reaction to Pine is of particular note, as it's unclear whether he regards the seemingly docile night manager as a wildcard risk or as more of a fun opportunity to mischievously play around with a new human toy.
What's immediately evident is the shot of adrenaline Laurie's presence adds to the drama, shifting the episode’s pace and presenting a physical antagonist at a surprisingly early stage for a Le Carré drama. With the enemy unveiled so early on -- although it’s certain that there's much more to be revealed about him and his allies – it'll be interesting to see what surprises lay ahead.
How long before Roper and Pine next come face to face? How will Burr use the information provided by Pine? Can Tom Hollander as Lance Corkoran possibly squeeze more delightful crudity out of his screen time? Avoid any entanglements with enigmatic foreign beauties for the next seven days, and you may well find out. I'll certainly be here.
Thomas Meehan is a history graduate of the University of Reading. Based outside London, he writes and directs independent short films, when not busy teaching the young.