Jonathan Pine is a former British soldier looking to escape the chaos and crookedness of our times. Yet quagmire chases him, and he can’t resist falling into it. While working the graveyard shift at a Cairo hotel during the Arab Spring, Sophie (Aure Atika), an equally worldweary woman sultry with danger, begs a favor that arouses his conscience, and other parts of him, too. The consequences draw Pine (Tom Hiddleston) into a twilight realm and suck us deep into The Night Manager, an ironic and engrossing saga about dark-knight heroism that continues an extraordinary year for smartly written, acting-driven short-form serials (see: American Crime; The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story).
The novel The Night Manager, written by British spy-fi master John le Carré in 1993, engaged the new reality of post–Cold War geopolitics and reflected a genre in transition. The miniseries updates the premise and speaks to a moment dull and dim with antiheroes. After the aforementioned Egyptian business leads to tragedy, Pine runs away again, taking post at a remote mountain resort. But a call to do-gooding—and opportunity for score-settling—finds him anew one evening when bogeyman arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) arrives with Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), his pale and beautiful girlfriend, and Corky (Tom Hollander), his foul, suspicious chief of staff. Duty and vendetta needle Pine to risk tattling on them. A British intelligence officer named Burr (Olivia Colman) prods him to take it further. Soon, Pine has masked himself with a false identity—a rogue named Andrew Birch—and infiltrated Roper’s family-tight operation in Palma de Mallorca, an island paradise full of temptations. Can Pine rope Roper without getting exposed or scorched by so much evil under the sun? Such is the screw-tightening suspense, impressively directed by Danish helmer Susanne Bier.
The Night Manager comes on like film noir, the kind where a flawed Everyman in a fallen world is seduced by desperate femmes fatales and a mesmerizing villain. But the warm, classical visual aesthetic is your first sign that this show has limited interest in affirming the cynicism of the genre or the current pop zeitgeist. Hiddleston’s deceptively passive Pine is a decidedly different take on the cool, privately tortured undercover operative at risk of losing himself in the murk of his work. Burr’s decency and patriotism (and her pregnancy) recall Frances McDormand’s Marge from Fargo. Sophie and Jed aren’t tempter vixens. Like Pine, they’re trapped souls who desire full, righteous lives—not hollow, sell-out lives.
Laurie’s Roper is the slyest creation. He’s an anti-Bond villain to Pine’s anti-Bond hero. He captivates us not with pure evil but with the possibility that he might only be a slimy international businessman, one with sincere romantic, philanthropic, and fatherly dimensions. Watching this death merchant delight in producing violent spectacle, collecting youth and beauty and grooming Pine to be the new “star” of his sick show, you wonder if Laurie is playing an arms dealer or a movie producer. A clever fable of heroic renewal, The Night Manager gives us a redemptive journey into a heart of darkness and a portrait of a genre mired in shadow pining for daylight. A–