The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a 2016 miniseries jointly produced by BBC and AMC. It is based upon the novel by prolific spy fiction writer and former British Intelligence author John le Carre. The miniseries stars Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Olivia Coleman (The lead in the excellent BBC police drama Broadchurch), Hugh Laurie (House on House), and Elizabeth Debecki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). The plot of the novel takes place in 1993; the miniseries was adapted for present-day 2016 by David Farr. All episodes were directed by Susanne Bier.

I have always had a peculiar fascination with the world of espionage. It has been extremely interesting to me from a very young age, it’s my version of your Dad’s American Civil War figurines. I have read a few of le Carre’s novels and really enjoyed the 2011 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman. When it comes to the mainstream audience, though, many find le Carre adaptations to be slow. They are, but slow does not have to mean boring. Let me explain by talking a little bit about le Carre’s career in espionage.

David Cromwell was born to a petty criminal in Liverpool, England and had a very tumultuous home life. He was academically gifted, though he dropped out after butting heads with a school headmaster. Cromwell studied language at the University of Bern in Switzerland before joining Military Intelligence as an interrogator of Germans who crossed over the Iron Curtain via the Berlin Wall. Afterwards, he returned to teach at Oxford where he covertly worked for MI-5, observing radical leftist groups for information on possible Soviet operatives. He became an official MI-5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, tapped phone lines, conducted interrogations, and effected break-ins.While an active agent, Cromwell wrote his first novel under the pseudonym John le Carre (French for “John the Square”).

In 1960, Cromwell transferred to MI-6 (commonly known by the euphemism “The Circus”, conducting operations while working under the cover of “Second Secretary” at the British Embassy in Bonn, and was later transferred to Hamburg. While in Hamburg, he wrote his breakout hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was adapted into a 1965 film starring Richard Burton. The film won and was nominated for several awards. It won Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in ’66 and was nominated for Best Actor and Art Direction at the ’66 Oscars, and won several other awards at other publications. In 1964, due to the damage caused by Kim Philby, Cromwell had all of his covers, assets, and active operations compromised by the KGB, and retired from the Service to become a full-time author.

The unique thing about le Carre’s novels (that make him, in my personal opinion, the best in the genre) is the unflinching dedication to realism. Le Carre’s most famous protagonist is George Smiley. Smiley was introduced around a time when people were more welcoming of realistic depictions of espionage, in contrast to James Bond and more “exciting” spy stories. He is wiry, unassuming, unattractive, and distinctly average. Smiley is, however, a master of tradecraft with stunning intellect.

Most of le Carré’s novels are spy stories set in the Cold War (1945–91) and feature Circus agents—unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged in psychological more than physical drama. Le Carré’s books emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence. Moreover, they experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible. (Wikipedia)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold tells the story of a disgruntled Circus employee, Alec Lemas, who defects, revealing secrets to the East German Intelligence Service. Lemas is, in reality, still working as a triple agent  The story is a complex tale of deceptions and lies with little to no action or violence, filled to the brim with equally complex tradecraft terminology.

le Carre’s magnum opus, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first in a trilogy of novels detailing Circus spymaster George Smiley’s hunt for his sinister Russian counterpart, Karla. In the novel, Smiley hunts for a mole at the top of the Circus. His recently deceased boss Control had it narrowed down to five people, codenamed “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier,” “Poor Man,” and “Beggar Man.” The story is an equally complex and confusing tale grounded in the real world of espionage with le Carre’s distinctly accurate terminology.

All of le Carre’s tales are slow-burning and methodical, as they should be. Unfortunately, this leads to many mainstream audiences (who thought they were to be thrilled out of their seats) to dismiss both The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which was nominated for over 100 awards from various outlets during the 2012 awards season, winning several) as slow, boring, dumb, and overrated. I rather enjoyed this film, as I mentioned, but when my parents watched it, I remember my Mom asking incredulously “Didn’t this get five stars?”

I was worried The Night Manager miniseries would be a similar situation. I am happy to report that it is not. The plot of The Night Manager involves Jonathan Pine, a former British soldier now working as a night manager for a hotel in Cairo. He meets Sophie Alucan, the mysterious and seductive mistress of Freddie Hammid, a member of the royal family. Sophie tips Jonathan off to an arms deal involving billionaire Richard Roper. On the surface, Roper is a charismatic, charitable, kind philanthropist with a loving wife and child.In reality, Richard Roper is a brutal and pragmatic international arms dealer who will exploit both sides of a conflict as long as there is money involved.

Pine relates information about this arms deal to the proper authorities. Angela Burr is an MI-6 counter-terrorism operative that has been hunting Roper for quite some time. Her attempts to get the intelligence community to investigate Roper have been continually stonewalled. Burr contacts Pine and tells him to get Sophie to safety; she is found murdered, leaving Roper and Hamid in the wind. The event traumatizes Pine, who leaves Cairo for the Swiss Alps.

Two years later, Pine encounters Roper in person for the first time and alerts Burr. Butt senses the anger and rage inside the former soldier and uses that to persuade the young man to go undercover and infiltrate Roper’s inner circle. Burr, aware of the corruption in the intelligence community, assembles a very small team of people in order to carry out this operation. While Pine attempts to work his way into Roper’s good graces and gain information, Burr must keep the operation a secret from prying eyes in both the British and American intelligence communities.

Unlike most of le Carre’s spy tales, The Night Manager, though fairly complex, is extremely simplistic in comparison to his other stories. Though still grounded and filled with accurate spycraft, this story, the first post-Cold War story le Carre published, is free of many of the geopolitical complexities that came with that era. Whereas most of the protagonists of that time period were morally ambiguous, tired, and cynical (as I’m sure was true back in the day), Jonathan Pine is a charming, attractive, fit protagonist with his heart in the right place. This adaptation has ample tension and suspense throughout, relying on the familiar but refreshing built in tension that comes inherently with a character who claims to be something that they are not. It is perhaps the most accessible to mainstream audiences an adaptation of a John le Carre novel will ever be. The locales are vibrant and beautiful, all the cast gives great performances, especially Hugh Laurie.

The Night Manager seems to take aspects that were once a staple of le Carre and turn them on their heads. The characters are young and passionate instead of old and cynical, the locales are colorful and full of inherent beauty,  swapping the murky streets of West Berlin for an island in the Caribbeans. I believe this sudden change in le Carre may have come from the conflict that engulfed the entirety of his professional intelligence career and the majority of his life finally coming to a close.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that, with near universal acclaim, this miniseries is a contender for several Emmys in the 2017 awards season. Le Carre has stated that, while the miniseries does take some liberties with his novel, he found it very enjoyable, and so did I.

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3 thoughts on “The Night Manager”

  1. I was pleasantly surprised at the background of the author. Thanks for the info. After reading your review, I will definitely finish watching this miniseries. Your critique was very good.

    Like

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