If you’ve made your name writing about Cold War espionage, what do you do when the Cold War ends? If you’re John le Carré, you take a vacation, and then you turn your attention to all the other bad subterranean business in the world.
The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post-Soviet novel, showing that old dogs can still bite. Two film companies tried and failed to adapt the book for theaters. The BBC and AMC succeeded: their six-episode adaptation of The Night Manager gives the story room to breathe.
Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston: Thor, The Avengers) is the titular after-hours functionary—a British veteran of the Iraq War, who now services the needs of insomniac guests in a five-star Cairo hotel. Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), the mistress of uber-rich sociopath Freddie Hamid (David Avery), accidentally-on-purpose shows Pine confidential papers regarding one of Hamid’s illicit arms deals. Pine passes them on to MI-6, which, unfortunately for Sophie’s longevity, has a leak.
Distraught, Pine moves to a posting in Zermatt, where London-based International Enforcement Agency (IEA) chief Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch) tells him that mega-rich industrialist Richard “Dickie” Roper (Hugh Laurie, House) is responsible for Sophie’s death. Pine signs up to infiltrate Roper’s organization, under Burr’s control, and bring down “the worst man in the world.”
John le Carré always had the reputation of getting the business of espionage right in his books, but he’s also highly skilled in portraying interagency conflict and bureaucratic pettifogging. Writer David Farr (Hanna, MI-5) had to make some serious adjustments to update the plot and make it work for TV, but he managed to keep the subtlety and paranoia that make le Carré’s novels so distinctive.
The series makes plot points out of shell companies and end-use certificates without turning into an episode of Frontline. It’s not often that a TV show makes signing incorporation papers (with a non-explosive pen, even) seem so fateful. Burr’s building of Pine’s new cover identities and the tradecraft of tracking his movements all feels correct, without making a big deal of it.
As for the pettifogging: MI-6 is desperate to get its hands on the IEA—which survives on a miniscule budget in the London equivalent of a cold-water flat—and isn’t afraid to use both bureaucratic maneuver and bald-faced threats to do it. It should also come as no surprise to anyone reading this that Burr discovers that Roper enjoys the unofficial cooperation of the British and American governments, which are less than happy about Burr’s nosiness.
In the meantime, Pine is faced with a typical le Carré hero’s dilemma: navigating the small and shrinking space between vipers on one side and wolves on the other. A bit of staged theatrics insinuates him into Roper’s entourage, but once there, he has to stay on Roper’s good side, keep Roper’s highly suspicious right-hand man Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander, Desperate Romantics) at arm’s length, and fight a doomed battle against his attraction to Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), Roper’s unhappy model-girlfriend. The various tensions and rivalries are well-staged and develop in their own time.
The performances are generally good to excellent. Hiddleston gets a lot of mileage out of his lanky frame and cut-crystal cheekbones, but he manages to communicate a lot through his bruised silences and posture. When he turns on his night-manager persona, you’ll totally buy it. Laurie’s Roper is a charming rogue, with a dry wit and public-school cool; even though his character is one of those vipers mentioned earlier, it’s hard to avoid thinking it’d be cool to hang out with him—as long as you could avoid getting killed. Colman plays spymaster-as-everywoman: hugely pregnant, a veneer of maternal concern masking her fierce dedication to destroying Roper and anyone else who gets in her way. Debicki’s Jed is perhaps the weakest link in the chain; she blows hot and cold for reasons not entirely clear and isn’t as handy with her many pregnant silences as is Hiddleston.
The series is handsomely shot on location in London, Devon, Majorca, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. It plays the Bond card more than strictly necessary, though, from the Bond-ish score and opening credits to Roper’s Blofeld-esque estate to the high gloss on all the pretty things (cars, boats, offices, people).
The Night Manager is a treat—an intelligent adaptation of an intelligent espionage novel written by a master of the genre. It’s a pleasure to watch without losing neurons in the process. It’s available on streaming media through amc.com until June 22 if you missed it on its first time around. If this sounds at all like your cuppa, start watching it now.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. The characters in his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South don’t live at Roper’s level but know his type. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.