The Night Manager (Preview)
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston

Produced by Rob Bullock; directed by Susanne Bier; screenplay by David Farr, based on the novel by John le Carré; cinematog­raphy by Michael Snyman; editing by Ben Lester; production design by Tom Burton; music by Víctor Reyes; starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Olivia Colman. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 361 min., 2016. A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. 

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier isn’t the first non-British director to tackle the work of that most British of contemporary novelists, John le Carré. A pattern established as early as 1965’s Martin Ritt-helmed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has persisted within the early-twenty-first-century upsurge of cinematic interest in the doyen of the Cold War and post-Cold War British spy novel: recent feature versions of The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and A Most Wanted Man (2014) were directed by a Brazilian, a Swede, and a Dutchman, respectively. Bier is, however, the first female filmmaker to reimagine le Carré for the screen. Her six-part miniseries adaptation of the author’s 1993 novel The Night Manager premiered on U.K. television in February 2016, a few weeks ahead of the theatrical release of Susanna White’s feature version of le Carré’s 2010 book Our Kind of Traitor. It is worth exploring, then, what a female artistic sensibility brings to the work of a writer whose literary worlds have to date proved mainly masculine domains and preserves on page and screen alike.

Even the most cursory of glances at Bier’s Night Manager reveals a substantially enhanced range of female protagonists and perspectives, compared with le Carré’s source text. The most widely discussed of several far-reaching changes screenwriter David Farr’s script performs upon le Carré’s material, for example, involves changing the gender of one central narrative protagonist. Lionel Burr, le Carré’s dogged and decent head of the deliberately underresourced International Enforcement Agency offshoot of British Intelligence, becomes the heavily pregnant Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). Morally outraged by her firsthand experience of the illegal use of chemical weapons during the Iraq War, Burr has spent a fruitless decade in pursuit of multimillionaire global arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).

An unexpected chance to snare her amoral and elusive prey arises when Burr is passed details of Roper’s arms sales to parties hostile towards the 2011 anti-Mubarak popular uprising in Egypt. Given damning proof of Roper’s activities by Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), the unhappy mistress of one of the former’s Egyptian clients, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a British ex-soldier turned luxury Cairo hotel night manager, jeopardizes his new career by passing Sophie’s information on to Britain’s Egyptian Embassy. Burr is thus enabled to prevent Roper’s deal from being completed, but her quarry escapes arrest and prosecution due to a tip-off from high-ranking protectors within U.K. intelligence and diplomatic corps. Roper has Sophie murdered when she refuses to reveal Pine’s involvement; guilt-ridden, the latter retreats to a new post and quasimonastic existence working in an exclusive Swiss Alpine resort.

Olivia Colman as British Special Intelligence Service agent Angela Burr.

Olivia Colman as British Special Intelligence Service agent Angela Burr.

Four years later, Roper unexpectedly reappears in Burr and Pine’s lives when his entourage checks into the Swiss hotel where Pine now works. Spurred by an undiminished sense of outrage at Sophie’s fate in Cairo, Pine reconnects with Burr. She hatches a plan to provide him with a fictitious criminal past and accelerated means of entry into Roper’s inner circle, via a fictitious plot to kidnap the latter’s infant son. Successfully embedded within Roper’s operation, Pine clandestinely romances-cum-recruits Roper’s unhappy mistress, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and the pair scheme to uncover incriminating evidence that can be placed in Burr’s hands. Burr herself maneuvers no less frantically to protect her operation’s integrity and field agent’s identity from Roper’s senior British and American governmental contacts. This enervating, fluid state of play reaches a climax when Roper attempts to conclude another major illegal arms deal in Cairo several years after he first affected Pine’s existence there. 

Bier and Farr’s recasting of Burr as a woman (and a heavily pregnant one at that) reverberates across The Night Manager on several interrelated thematic levels. Most obviously of all, individual and institutional misogyny is framed as a key enabling precondition for state-sponsored covert and overt militarism within the present-day geopolitical arena. The casual degradation inflicted upon (and resultant depression and desperation suffered by) a wide range of major and minor female protagonists is emphasized to an extent not true of le Carré’s original novel. In the miniseries’ first episode, for example, Sophie is equally despised by ruthless Egyptian criminals and seemingly upright British diplomats alike, dismissed by both as a “whore.” The consequent early sense that there will perhaps be no truly secure or sustaining place for women within either of the ostensibly antagonistic ambits of illicit arms selling and Anglo-American statecraft is systematically reiterated and extended as later episodes unfold. Roper’s offhandedly reductive conflation of Jed with a range of other blood-money-bankrolled trophy luxuries—“I went to buy a painting: came back with her”—resonates all the more disturbingly, for instance, when counterpointed with the thoughtlessness of Angela’s well-meaning British Foreign Office manager, Rex Mayhew (Douglas Hodge), who continues to patronize a male-only London gentleman’s club.

More complexly yet, Bier and Farr also discern—and further develop—within le Carré’s literary source material a proxy war played out between the respective defining priorities of geopolitics (matters of homeland security) and family politics (the human need and desire to land a secure home). It is no accident in this regard that The Night Manager opens with an image of false parenthood, a promotional video showing Roper clutching a Syrian refugee child to his breast. As later episodes subsequently make clear, Roper’s pointedly named Safe Haven refugee project ostensibly supports those fleeing from Syria only as an ingenious smokescreen for his illegal arms sales to the proponents of that and similar civil conflicts. The public pretense of a fictional family proves the very means by which real ones are pulled apart once Western media cameras are no longer observing.

On another level, however, Roper’s wholesale destruction of countless families is, Bier and Farr argue, predicated on a clear and sincere desire to construct and belong to one of his own. Acting out the self-congratulatory, knowingly anachronistic role of munificent, all-powerful patriarch (he variously presents himself as the modern-day equivalent to “Emperors of Rome” or “Kings of Arabia”), Roper sees himself as the absolute monarch of an arms-dealing mobile court within which “we do a little swashbuckling…but we play straight with each other.” In this way, Bier and Farr do a fair job of rationalizing the self-destroying (and logically implausible) degree of personal trust he places in Jonathan as part of a would-be father’s grateful identification of a suitable surrogate son…

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Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1