Beginning with The Tailor of Panama in 2001, John le Carre adaptations have slowly come back into fashion. After the Pierce Brosnan-Goeffrey Rush joint (which also features a teeny-tiny Daniel Radcliffe), there was Fernando Meirelles’ incredible The Constant Gardener, and the resurgence hit full-swing with 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 2014’s underrated A Most Wanted Man. Suffice it to say that it’s a good time to get into the spy business, and in that regard, AMC’s adaptation of The Night Manager, based on le Carre’s 1993 novel, is perfectly timed.
The miniseries also returns the business of spy stories to the medium that has served them best. The examples mentioned above constitute a trend of not just le Carre adaptations, but good le Carre adaptation, but the art form’s heyday was back in ’79 and ’82 with the Tinker, Tailor miniseries and its follow-up, Smiley’s People, both starring Sir Alec Guinness. In the six to eight hour range, a le Carre story has the room to take its time to dive in the murky moral and psychological depths of spycraft with the sad, bureaucratic men and women (more on that later) who play the game.
And if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, I just don’t know what to tell you.
But The Night Manager is a bit of a strange beast of a le Carre adaptation, and the differences are apparent from the word “go.” In 1993, the novel was the author’s first major foray away from the cozy geo-political crisis he called his literary home for two decades, and in 2016, the plot is pushed even further from the Cold War, to Cairo in the throws of the Arab Spring.
The man at the center of it all — actually, the man politely passing through the center of it — is Jonathan Pine, a man so tall, fair, and eloquent that he couldn’t possibly be just the night manager of the Nefertiti Hotel. He’s the kind of guy you’d see working the front desk during a social uprising and wonder, “Is that dude a spy?” The answer to that question by the end of the first hour is decidedly “Not yet,” but we can see the makings of a solid informant.
Pine has a history to him. There’s a reason he’s found himself working the night shift in a hotel call far from his native England. I could relay the backstory provided in the novel, which Hiddleston has often referred to as a great source of inspiration for his Pine, but the third chapter opens with a beautiful, complex, and succinct summary of the man.
Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many post-colonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometime army wolfchild with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination, sat in his sanitary Swiff office behind reception smoking his third unusual cigarette and pondering the sage words of the hotel’s revered founder that hung framed alongside his imposing sepia photograph.
Makes you feel like you’re not a very good writer, huh? Me too.
NEXT: Things get Bond-y
So you get the picture, Pine in the book and as internalized by Hiddleston has some layers, and that’s good because it doesn’t take long before he’s laying that “James Bond audition” charm really thick with one of the Nefertiti’s guests, mistress of well-connected bad dude Freddie Hamid and small dog owner Sophie Alekan. She is a captive within her life of luxury and sees Pine as an out, but a tenuous one at that. She strikes up a conversation with her loyal night manager after seeing him aboard a yacht with a diplomat friend, Simon Ogilvey. Sophie has dirt on Freddie, the kind of dirt that would be of interest to the British government. It’s her hope that the hotel guy, who was on a yacht that one time with a diplomat friend, can help bring down her terrible boyfriend. Sure, it’s a bad plan, but it’s the plan that involves Tom Hiddleston’s butt.
Then before you know it, we’re swept up into a lusty tale of seduction, runaway lovers, and stolen secrets. It’s the kind of nonsense that you can always count on 007 to get up to, but certainly not a le Carre protagonist, who tend to be cheated on rather than rescuing abused mistresses from their powerful, violent boyfriends.
If Pine is steering the plot in a Bond-y direction, Angela Burr (played brilliantly by Olivia Coleman) is grabbing the wheel in the name of team George Smiley. Burr, a character that was gender-swapped and made pregnant to suit Coleman, hits bingo on the sad spy playing card of my heart. Her office is freezing cold, and her department is all but forgotten, and she’s brilliant. It’s here that we see the kind of spycraft that separated le Carre from his sexier contemporaries. One of the premiere’s dramatic high points happens because Burr isn’t given Pine’s intel until the very last moment. The wheels of bureaucratic espionage churn slowly, and even the best are left to deal with whatever comes out the other end.
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In this case, the result is the murder of poor Sophie, the spark that sets our espionage story into motion. The intel that Sophie leaked through Pine pointed at a weapons deal between Hamid and Richard Roper (Dr. House, err, Hugh Laurie), business man, philanthropist, oh, and the most evil man in the world. Roper is Burr’s white whale, her Karla for the le Carre heads out there. She’s been unable to get close to him, until a former night manager from Cairo turns up in a snowy Alpine lodging where Roper happens to stay.
So yeah, this tale of espionage begins with one giant coincidence, but I’m willing to forgive it at this point. The work that Hiddleston, Coleman, Laurie, and Elizabeth Debicki as the rarely clothed Jed are doing for director Susanne Bier is top notch. There may be an adjustment period for everyone expecting Hiddleston to only speak with the sub-Shakespearean eloquence of a Norse god (guilty!), but The Night Manager is off to a very promising, very exciting start.