UK TV review: The Night Manager
James R | On 30, Mar 2016
The Night Manager was written by John le Carré in 1993. Not that you could tell from the BBC’s sumptuous, gripping adaptation: the 23-year-old tale feels like it was written yesterday.
The basic set-up is the same: former soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), now the night manager of a hotel, is recruited by an intelligence officer to bring down a big arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie). He has a girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), a loyal number two, Major “Corky” Corkoran (Tom Hollander), and a whole lot of digits in his bank account. So far, so standard. Tom Hiddleston, with his sleek suits and slick hair, even looks like he could be the new 007. But The Night Manager takes the usual spy formula and turns it into something much more.
The show’s command of genre conventions is evident from the off, as we slip into the criminal world at the same time as our protagonist – Pine finds himself approached on duty by the girlfriend of a smaller arms dealer, whom he subsequently attempts to whisk away from danger. Things, inevitably, go awry – but not before Hiddleston sells their bond enough for it to become a convincing fuel for his revenge.
Enter Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), a lone British agent with an obsessive desire to take Roper out, who offers Pine the perfect opportunity to get his own back. One fake criminal background later and he’s infiltrating Roper’s ring, seducing the girl and narrowly avoiding being discovered at every turn.
The pacing is flawless. Writer David Farr, who has penned more than enough Spooks to know how much spying can be done in one hour, spreads the secret agenting efficiently across the six parts, serving up regular cliffhangers worthy of an all-at-once Netflix release. The dialogue occasionally slips into cinema-speak – “Nothing quite as pretty as napalm at night,” smirks Roper, following a particularly vibrant munitions display – but that only adds to the slightly old-school espionage vibe, one that’s established immediately by the gorgeous opening credits (directed by Patrick Clair of Elastic, who also made the titles for Daredevil and True Detective).
The cast slink into their roles with class, from David Harewood’s Joel, whose chemistry with Colman leaves you screaming at the telly for them to get it on, to Elizabeth Debicki’s doe-eyed, duplicitous lover. After a scene-stealing turn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it’s a treat to see her get more screen-time, even when she has to deliver such lines as “Everyone finds you attractive…” with a straight face. If she were saying it to anyone other than Tom Hiddleston, it would be enough to derail the whole programme, but it’s true: everyone does seem to, including Tom Hollander’s sinister second-in-command.
Hiddleston is impeccable throughout, the picture of cool restraint during his hotel job and even cooler under the pressure of being undercover. Hollander, meanwhile, makes the most the breathing space, juxtaposing Hiddleston’s calm charisma with a spitting performance full of venom. “Your cottage is down at the end,” he tells Pine, as he shows him around Roper’s estate. “Alternatively fill your pockets with stones, walk into the sea, and keep going.” Any chance to see him insult, bully and threaten people is one to be treasured – you wonder whether Farr, who also penned Joe Wright’s Hanna, which starred Hollander as a similarly despicable villain, had him in mind when he wrote the script.
It’s a shame that he and Colman, who was his co-star on BBC’s Rev, never get the chance to share the screen – although she certainly enjoys every minute she has, from one riveting monologue about Roper’s back-story to her own ruthless skills in the field, despite being pregnant. (“The perfect cover”, she insists to Joel, when he expresses concern.) Any spy who can use the word “discombobulated” and namedrop Bermondsey in the middle of all this action deserves their own franchise.
The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Hugh Laurie. Slimy, sociopathic and always stylishly dressed, it’s hard to believe this wonderfully loathsome man was once Bertie Wooster. Who knew during Fry and Laurie’s heyday that the actor would one day end up here? But where Hugh could ham it up and cackle his way through the six hours, he underplays every moment – a subtle touch made even more effective by the fact that we don’t really see him until an hour into the story. His Roper is a businessman through and through and acts like a busy father would, sighing at the intrusion of needing to take his kid to the airport and doing whatever it takes to get the money at the end of the day. Even when he makes a surprising discovery about Pine, he doesn’t erupt or even appear shocked – if anything, he’s impressed by his surrogate, or even a little proud. “Oh, you beauty,” he smiles.
That almost paternal affection he displays for Pine counteracts the niggling voice in your head wondering whether an arms dealer would really trust a newcomer so quickly. “It’s all rotten,” Roper explains to his pad-wan, with the air of a dad dispensing world wisdom. “Realising how to celebrate the rottenness. That’s freedom.”
Laurie’s corporate mindset taps directly into what makes The Night Manager so thrillingly contemporary. Relocating the story to present-day Egypt, the entire thing unfolds in the shadow of regimes, revolutions and international interventions – a landscape where guns can be as decisive as democratic votes, where the thirst to see the shadowy figures in power pay is as powerful as the right money in the right person’s pocket. It elevates a typical spy story into a complex, engrossing political tale – it’s not just hard to believe that The Night Manager was written two decades ago; it’s hard to believe that it would even work outside of this context.
Holding all these threads together is Susanne Bier, a director who has proven time and time again that she has a knack for drawing naturalistic turns from her cast – and, judging by the expensive explosions, costumes and sets on display, knows how to build an equally realistic world around them. In her hands, the show builds to a genuinely nail-biting and satisfying climax, one that feeds off modern politics as much as emotion. Forget all the talk of Tom Hiddleston taking over the reins from Daniel Craig: Susanne Bier should be the next James Bond director.
Photo: BBC/The Ink Factory/Mitch Jenkins