Contains plot details for episode one.
John le Carré’s stories aren’t so much examples of spy thrillers as they are a genre entirely unto themselves. You know exactly what you’re going to get from a le Carré novel, and it has almost nothing in common with James Bond.
Le Carré’s stories are small, quiet and subtle. They’re about big, important and even world-changing themes and events, but they play out in the shadows of quiet out-of-the-way places. Everything of importance takes place under the surface so that the actual dialogue is very rarely a clue as to what’s going on, tending to the oblique and bland or even often downright deceptive. Instead we have to intuit the truth from a stray glance here, a nervous pause there, perhaps a significant exchange of looks or a puzzled frown. Everything is very precise, everything surely means something even if you don’t know what exactly.
In a screen adaptation of a Le Carré novel, that means that even the choice of location, how a set is dressed or lit, what a character is wearing, how long the director lingers on a particular shot and when the editor opts to cut away are all equally a part of this unspoken orchestration. You have to pay attention to everything because literally anything might be hugely significant in some way; but equally, you might end up getting drawn into a dead end or a trap. It’s enough to make you quickly fall into the same sense of unease, dread, suspicion and paranoia which is the essence of the world that all le Carré’s characters inhabit.
The level of chilly introspective precision required for a le Carré story is not for everyone. You’ll almost certainly know whether le Carré is your sort of thing or not; and by extension you probably also already know how you will feel about the BBC’s high-budget, high-profile adaptation of The Night Manager whether or not you’ve actually seen it yet. It’s every bit as good as a le Carré fan could possibly hope for; but at the same time, that faithful adherence to the le Carré style will not be for everyone and especially not for those who need their spy fiction to be a little less glacial and reserved.
Given that the opening scenes of The Night Manager are set against the backdrop of Egypt’s so-called Arab Spring in 2011, it’s a surprise to find out that le Carré’s original novel of the same name was actually written almost two decades earlier in 1993. We quickly meet Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a former solider who now works as the titular night manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo (actually filmed on location in Marrakech.) A beautiful guest named Sophie (Aure Atika, also currently starring in More 4’s Spin a.k.a. Les Hommes de l’ombre) entrusts him with documents that expose a massive arms sale implicating British billionaire philanthropist Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) in war crimes, but when Pine sends the information to the British intelligence services via a contact at the local embassy (Russell Tovey) there are immediate and deadly repercussions on the ground in Cairo while the revelations themselves are quickly squelched in Westminster.
After this we jump forward three years to find Pine now working as a hotel night manager in the Swiss Alps, where seemingly by coincidence the VIP guest arriving that night is none other than Roper together with his entourage which includes lover Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki) and right hand strongman Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander). When Roper seems to take an instinctive liking to him, Pine reaches out to British intelligence chief Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) in an effort to see how he can build on this connection to achieve retribution for the bloody events in Cairo.
Even at this early stage of proceedings there are questions nibbling away at the back of the viewer’s brain. Exactly why did Sophie hand over the documents to Pine in the first place – just because he’s a pretty face and she wanted to get him into bed? The speed of the development seems odd, and in le Carré’s world ‘odd’ is usually a sign that something deeper is going on here than we’re supposed to realise at this point. Certainly the fact that Pine moves to a new post at a hotel where Roper is known to be a regular visitor appears to be no coincidence, even though it’s a very long game indeed for someone to be playing in pursuit of vengeance. Is Pine all that he seems, or is he being intentionally manoeuvred and set-up by other, more sinister parties? Now we’re in classic le Carré territory where no one can be trusted, not even our hero.
If Hiddleston weren’t already a firmly established international film star (how long ago it seems back to when he was playing eager young sidekick to Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander in 2008!) then this would be an undoubted star-making role for him – he’s in almost every scene and is firmly the centre of attention throughout. Certainly it seems that if the Bond franchise really is in search of someone new to replace Daniel Craig, then The Night Manager for all its lack of action thrills certainly makes for one heck of an audition tape for Hiddleston, in much the same way that And Then There Were None similarly threw Aidan Turner’s cap into the ring for consideration.
But the fact that Hiddleston is already a Hollywood movie star speaks volumes for the BBC’s international hopes and ambitions for The Night Manager. Similarly Laurie, Hollander and Tovey are also all very recognisable faces to US audiences, leaving only Colman as the comparative ‘newcomer’ to those watching overseas despite her well-justified sky-high reputation in the UK through the likes of Broadchurch, Rev and Peep Show.
Coming as it does in a charter renewal year, The Night Manager is an unequivocally prestigious production intended to show off why the BBC is so important to the British arts scene. This is the Corporation’s first small screen adaptation of a le Carré story since they dramatised Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People and A Perfect Spy in 1979, 1982 and 1987 respectively, and just like the recent remake of War & Peace it seems expressly designed to hark back to some of the BBC’s greatest past successes from its uncontested glory days just to remind us of what we’d be missing if it were to be dismantled by a hostile government.
All those hopes and expectations heaped upon The Night Manager mean that no expense or effort has been spared to make this as immaculately brilliant as possible. And it is: from every single on-screen performance (which also includes Douglas Hodge and River’s Adeel Akhtar) through to the screenplay (by David Farr) and the direction (by Susanne Bier) there seems no way that the production could realistically have been improved in any regard.
That said, it remains first and foremost a le Carré story – and a long form le Carré at that, not one of those edited highlights compilations that you inevitably get with a two-hour film adaptation. That means it is both slow and obfuscated to the nth degree, which will doubtless frustrate viewers looking for easier, more visceral and immediate thrills rather than the extended slow burn on offer here. After all, even the sainted seven-part version of Tinker, Tailor was a really long haul that easily could and perhaps should have been nipped and tucked to improve the pacing, and the same might well be said to be true here especially for those audience members with even light attention deficit concerns, and certainly when compared with Andrew Davies’ recent breathless whirlwind adaptation of the monolithic War & Peace.
But the pace and the longueurs are part of the trademark le Carré milieu right alongside the subtlety and general all-pervading sense of suspicion and doubt and sublimated danger. You doubtless already know if you like the le Carré formula, and if you do then The Night Manager will be nirvana for you; if you don’t then this new adaptation is unlikely to convert you into the fold and you’re better off giving it a miss.
However, just be aware that if you do then you’ll be missing some of the most intelligent, grown up, stylish drama that will be on offer all year. Your loss.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The Night Manager continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 9pm and thereafter available for a month on the BBC iPlayer. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 28 2016.