And Everything Turned Out OK
by Jack H. Simons
The basic story plot for all ages pits ultimate evil against flawed good with the flawed good coming out on top. The protagonist must be flawed because we are all flawed. Only Jesus Christ or an old-timey Methodist would claim sinless perfection, but the rest of us cohabit with faults, and find the arrangement normal.
Thus in AMC’s miniseries The Night Manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is flawed, suppressed, emotionally scarred by an early orphaning, a seething mass of white-hot contradiction hidden by a pentathlete’s physique, a movie star’s face, and all the social graces that famous British colleges might bestow.
His controller, Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) tells Pine upon recruitment:
“There is half a psychopath lurking in there, Jonathan. I want you to find him and stick to him. . . . There is no right or wrong for you . . . it’s all me, me, me. Don’t give anyone an inch. Anyone pisses you off, you smack em. Anyone who crosses you, God help them. . . . Are you comfortable with that?”
“Yes,” he says, “I am.”
Hugh Laurie plays the satanic Richard Onslow Roper with an unearned grace and presence that both pleases and astounds. Through the connivance of powerful factions of British and United States intelligence, he sells weapons to indigenous groups in the Mideast so that they might more efficiently slaughter one another. A whole sequence in episode five picturing a fire power demonstration for potential customers should best be described as weapon-pornography.
As Nietzsche’s superman must be larger than life, Roper strides across the miniseries: the man with the power, the money, the answers, the verve, the beautiful woman, the island mansion, the connections, the protection, and the energy to function as a free man. He says to Pine: “Becoming a man is realizing it’s all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness, now that’s freedom.”
The inciting material includes Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), a kept woman at the Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo. She passes incriminating material to Pine, who passes it on to British intelligence. The indiscretion returns to fall on her head. Here is the scene:
Sophie: “Who did you show the papers too? Please, just tell me. I would understand. I need to know. Freddie Hamid was just here. He said he has just spoken to the man from Iron Last.
Jonathan: Which man?
Sophie: Richard Roper. The worst man in the world.
Jonathan: Why do you call him the worst man in the world?
Sophie: Because he sells destruction, pain and death, and he laughs.”
Sophie dies a brutal death that can be laid to Jonathan Pine’s patriotism. Several years later during the recruitment scene, Burr asks him why he passed on the documents:
Angela Burr: “So why does Jonathan Pine, respected hotelier, risk his career by snitching on his guests? First in Cairo, then here [Meisters Hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland].
Jonathan Pine: I don’t know.
Angela Burr: Yes you do.
Jonathan Pine: Something stirred, I suppose.
Angela Burr: What stirred?
Jonathan Pine: Well I suppose…
Angela Burr: What stirred?
Jonathan Pine: Listen, if there’s a man selling a private arsenal to an Egyptian crook, and he’s English, and you’re English, and those weapons can cause a lot of pain to a lot of people. Then you just do it. Anyone would do it.
Angela Burr: Plenty wouldn’t.”
The Night Manager stays densely interesting from beginning to end. Its many merits and few flaws deserve a book – which I am not going to write. I will make a few observations about the original John le Carré book and its ultimate transfer to film. Then will tell you in the strongest terms to watch the series.
So let’s begin with the book’s author, John le Carré: The principal spy novel author of my lifetime whose books after Smiley’s People have had a difficult time finding me as an audience. I tried to read The Night Manager at publication. When the action reached the Caribbean, I lost interest. I threw it away, but recently bought it again and read it through for this review.
Carré is an English lion. He appears in episode 4 as a diner upset by Corky’s (Tom Hollander) rude behavior over a lobster dish. I would not wish to disturb that impressive man’s peace. But I must. It appears that Carré wrote the novel (published in 1993) as a protest against, and exposé of the weapon-selling decisions of the United States and Great Britain. Once he had finished making his protest about four fifths of his way through the novel, he stopped writing – there are still words on the page but a dramatic story line fueled by Pine’s actions disappears.
He couldn’t find a way out for Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) who was Roper and Pine’s mistress with some simultaneity. Nor could he save Pine from the snitches in London who blew his cover.
Roper cages and tortures Pine; keeps Jed on a leash, and plans to provide both of them with gruesome deaths. Pine’s role is passive, stiff-upper-lip British courage; Jed’s role is to stoically endure what amounts to rape as she awaits her master’s will concerning her life.
But even at the end of the 20th century, Carré finds use for the good old deus ex machina, and Burr arranges a shell game scam that causes Roper to release both prisoners into a motorboat near a friendly shore. When last seen in the novel they are living happily ever after in south Cornwall breeding horses.
C. S. Forester made the same mistake in The African Queen. Charlie and Rose navigate the Queen past every obstacle on their way to blow up the Louisa. The Queen sinks in a storm. The Germans turn the survivors over to the British. British gun boats sink the Louisa, and according to Forester, maybe Charlie and Rose live happily ever after. In the film, John Huston was smart enough to have the Queen sink the Louisa.
Well Carré literally found his Huston: David Farr, a youngish film writer, stage director with a background in Shakespearean productions, who should be the hottest thing in film after the success of The Night Manager. I was prepared to give him credit for all creative excellence, and Carré credit for the source material.
But Carré vetted Farr, and then managed him through the writing – meaning that he discussed and approved the numerous changes Farr proposed. So Carré, who received some criticism earlier, must receive much praise for the final product – a sterling film whose tension never lapses, and interest never wanes.
Olivia Colman is a particularly good choice to play Angela Burr. Farr switched genders on the original Burr – he said to make the story more modern, as though to pass muster by meeting a quota. Unnecessary. Colman carries the role in all her pregnant glory, nuancing the story with her sharp mind, and providing the story with its courageous conscience.
The cast throughout is outstanding, a glittering Christmas tree of United Kingdom and European talent. It was amusing to notice Laurie, Colman, Hiddleston, and Hollander all attended Cambridge University (Pembroke College – Hiddleston, Selwyn College – Laurie and Hollander, Homerton College – Colman). Debicki was the equivalent of an American valedictorian at Huntingtower School in eastern Melbourne, and completed a degree in drama at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts. If I included more actors, there would be more notices of major English Universities.
In every technical aspect of film making: setting, camera work, editing, music, and clearly representing reality the film is superb.
The cast works well together, but this is more difficult than it might first appear. Laurie is the problem – when he is in the scene, like a great black hole in space, he soaks up all available light. He does this without evil or malice – the man just has too powerful a presence for other actors to successfully contend. Director Susanne Bier and film editor Ben Lester deserve abundant credit for all they did to keep the ensemble of actors in balance.
One final caveat: The villainy of these films is always generated by capitalists. The pattern has been with us for decades going back to early television spy dramas and James Bond: The villain is never a political ideologue, or religious fanatic or tribal demagogue, but always a capitalist anonymously running the world from a hidden fort while sometimes stroking a cat. The reason cannot be considered obvious – the people who finance, make and star in these movies are ardent practicing capitalists.
It might be from an atavistic desire we all exhibit to eat our own gut – like a snake devouring its tail. Pol Pot on the other hand is a highly unsatisfying villain. So is Idi Amin. Kim Jong-un rules North Korea with a rod of iron and daily threatens nuclear war, but to us he is a clown in a funny suit. The other political rulers appear from afar as gray bureaucrats, who might be fussy or pedantic, but they don’t meet the criteria for a full-blooded villain.
No. Our villains have to be a distorted reflection of our own image – a lapsed Presbyterian who doesn’t believe in God, but still believes in hell – a free-wheeling, powerful man who commits the crimes we wish we could be tempted to commit if we occupied his place of opportunity – Donald Trump, by coincidence, is the perfect villain – not in his penthouse or the White House, but in the basement occupying a fortified capitalist war room, oe’r-ruling the world before banks of phones and computers and wall-sized display screens, being helped by hordes of scurrying assistants.
One last: Every word that comes out of Richard Onslow Roper’s mouth is balanced – almost every word is true. The same will be said of the anti-Christ.
The Night Manager is rated TV-14 and available from Amazon Instant Video