The Night Manager Review – Changing of the Guard
(Spoiler alert: The following review contains major plot discussion and is intended mostly for people who have viewed the entire series, but for all those who haven’t yet seen The Night Manager I’d definitely recommend it)
I read John le Carré’s The Night Manager (1993) five or six years ago, and it immediately shot up the list of my favourite le Carré novels and became one of my favourite spy novels full stop. Le Carre’s tale of one man’s mission to bring an illegal arms dealer to justice by going undercover and infiltrating the underworld of those who profit in death and destruction had me hooked from first page to last. So, when I discovered at the beginning of this year that it had finally been adapted for the screen in the form of a six part miniseries, I was naturally excited but also apprehensive. Adaptations of le Carré’s novels for the small and silver screen have been a decidedly mixed bag. How does The Night Manager fare?
Episode one introduces the hero of the story, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), the night manager at a luxury hotel in Cairo. Pine first appears calmly walking through the streets of Cairo as tear gas explodes and riots break out all around him. It is 2011 and the fall of Egypt’s modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, marks the beginning of the Arab Spring. Pine is ex-army, an Iraq War veteran and ‘one cool cucumber’. His job is to keep the hotel visitors safe and happy in the midst of a revolution which kickstarted a wave of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. Into this strange setting of luxury and violence walks the enigmatic and beautiful Sophie (aka Samara) played by the beguiling Aure Atika. Pine is instantly attracted to her: she penetrates his professional exterior and sets him on a course of action which will place both of them in mortal peril. Sophie is the mistress of playboy billionaire and regime stooge Freddie Hamid. She discloses to Pine that Hamid is planning to buy illegal arms, including napalm and sarin, from British businessman Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie). But when Pine passes this information onto British Intelligence, he finds himself unable to protect Sophie from either Hamid’s thugs or the corrupt British officials who are in the pocket of Roper. Sophie’s grisly fate affects Pine profoundly. Unable to avenge her or receive justice from the Egyptian police, he seeks total obscurity, taking a job at an isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps. Four years later, he comes face to face with the man who was chiefly responsible for Sophie’s death. Richard Roper and his entourage check into Pine’s Swiss hotel one night and this reinvigorates his desire for vengeance. Roper is unaware of Pine’s relationship with Sophie, and Pine dutifully carries out his responsibilities while secretly observing the arms dealer Sophie once described as ‘the worst man in the world’. Roper is funny and charming, albeit in an arrogant way; ‘so pleasing to wake up the fucking Germans’ he says as his helicopter lands outside the hotel. He can slipstream from being an adoring father one minute to selling weapons to Middle East gangsters and tinpot dictators the next. Pine plans a righteous revenge on the man who cheerfully admits to extracting pleasure and profit from the chaos of the world.
By episode two, the story was moving along at a cracking pace. With the help of Intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), seemingly the only spook in London who isn’t on Roper’s payroll, Pine develops an intricate ‘legend’ (cover-story) in which he steals 40,000 Euros from his Swiss hotel, reemerges as a drug pusher in Devon, and ‘murders’ a fellow dealer. He next meets Roper after saving his son from a stage-managed kidnapping attempt near the arms dealer’s villa in Mallorca. Now he has Roper’s trust, he has to find a place in the villain’s entourage. He is immediately drawn to Roper’s sexy American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), a gangster’s moll who grows ever more disgusted by her world of luxury built on blood money, and he finds an instant enemy in Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran (Tom Hollander), an acid-tongued henchman who finds his position threatened by Pine.
Shortly before her demise, Sophie’s describes Pine’s inability to protect her as the ‘Changing of the Guard‘. Sophie casts a long shadow over this series, and I never quite felt the remaining episodes lived up to the spell she puts on Pine and, if I’m honest, me. There was an all-too-brief, and beautifully realised romantic scene when Sophie and Pine looked like they might have a happy future together, and I just wanted the series to end right there, but viewers familiar with the novel would know that Pine’s first love has a grim fate which is the catalyst for this tale of revenge. Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Pine; an Englishman ‘to the core’, his sense of honour compels him to assume the role of the ‘second worst man in the world’ in order to win Roper’s trust. Hugh Laurie is a revelation as Roper, perhaps not so much to American viewers who know him chiefly as the arch-cynic Dr Gregory House. But British audiences who remember him as the bumbling George in Blackadder Goes Forth, or Bertie Wooster, or even Peter, the co-owner of a ‘health club that will put the town of Uttoxeter on the goddamned map once and for all’ in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, will marvel at how he has transitioned from lovable comic actor to malevolent rogue with apparent ease. I was not entirely sold on Colman’s performance as Burr. The decision to make Burr a female character (it’s Leonard Burr in the book) seemed a bit too right-on and she had a tendency to preach. That being said, her independent streak did contrast nicely with the MI6 agents who were all rotten to the core.
Performances aside, the biggest talking point this ratings smash raised was the ending which, as an article tantalisingly published the day before the last episode was aired revealed, is very different to the ending in the book. Broadly speaking, this has been a faithful adaptation, which captured the essence of le Carré’s narrative while changing locations and cleverly updating the plot to take in the, still topical, Arab Spring. However, I felt way the series ended was too comic book, OTT and, again, preachy. There were tense moments, but I was disappointed that the creative team did not have the courage to stay true to le Carré’s bleak and ambiguous denouement. The Night Manager was the first novel le Carré published after the end of the Cold War. It represents his own changing of the guard as he was no longer writing about the conflict between East and West but instead started going after enemies closer to home. Stylistically, it also marked a departure as le Carré had defined himself as a spy writer whose novels were the complete antithesis to the fantasy world of Ian Fleming. But with its globe-hopping locations and glamorous veneer, The Night Manager is as seductive as the Bond series at its best (and a pretty good audition for Tom Hiddleston as 007 everyone seems to agree). As adaptations of le Carré’s work go, this doesn’t quite reach the seminal heights of the 1979 mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I confess that, despite its flaws, I loved every minute of it.