A Well-Tailored Soldier Spy
Tom Hiddleston and the supporting cast are excellent in this slow-burning but eventually rewarding adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy thriller.
The morally ambiguous present day sets the scene for another John Le Carré adaptation, updated from its original novelistic time period of the 1990s. Ex-soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is the night manager at a luxury Cairo hotel, a decent, professional and likeable chap who looks after his guests and seems altogether content with his lot. But it wouldn’t be an espionage thriller if everything wasn’t soon turned on its head by something decidedly dodgy, sending Pine into a murky world of secrets and lies. He is courted by the reassuringly-accented Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the operation of businessman-cum-arms-dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Naturally he says yes, and, unnervingly, becomes quite an efficient spy in no time flat.
However, a thrill a minute this is not. Following the gripping opener, the pacing of the majority of the six-episode series is deliberately languid so as to wring maximum tension from Pine’s precarious situation inside Roper’s shady set-up. Consequently, aside from the assembled cast swanning around in Majorca for a good while and Hiddleston infrequently getting his kit off, not much of substance happens during the middle three episodes. That is, unless you count a surfeit of lingering glances or the occasional good character moment as eventful. The Night Manager is remarkably like the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace in this respect. The atmosphere itself appears to be as much a part of the plot as the actual plot.
It is only in the storming final two episodes, particularly the brilliant finale (where the writers chose to change the original ending), that the show delivers on its early promise. I am still grappling with whether the pacing is a televisual defect or a hallmark of how espionage actually works, but ultimately have come round to the view that although it may take its time getting there, The Night Manager is worth the wait.
It does help that the casting is near-immaculate. Flavour of the month Tom Hiddleston puts in a solid performance as the titular hotelier-turned-spy, able to shift from sensitive to stone-cold in a heartbeat. Hugh Laurie is admirably un-House like as Roper, bringing a charming yet dangerous air to the villain of the piece. Tom Hollander (below), meanwhile, is on great form as ever. In recent times he has played an earnest, downtrodden vicar in Rev, yet here he is utterly convincing as a conceited yet loyal member of Roper’s inner circle, Corky. This role coinciding with his paternal, authoritative turn in ITV’s Doctor Thorne, he is showcasing remarkable versatility at the moment. Olivia Colman, however, is the unsung star of the show, with her scathing put-downs and unswerving determination making her every scene brilliant.
However, a big talking point of the series has been the comparison with Bond. Hiddleston does indeed exhibit many of the traits of 007 – he’s good in a suit, suave and well-spoken but able to pull a punch too. He’s also a bit of a lady-killer when he puts his mind to it, with certain scenes throughout the series having set Twitter ablaze. He ticks a lot of boxes, certainly, but his style in The Night Manager may be almost too cerebral for Bond. Still, he has time yet to properly prove himself, so we’ll have to see how that particular mission develops.
But back to the mission at hand, there is substance under all the style (the latter amply illustrated by locations like Majorca, the Middle East, America and London), but I do believe that the hype surrounding The Night Manager has gone a little too far. The BBC ran an article on the show’s relevance to the present moment, whilst Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw tweeted to guess the state of series director Susanne Bier’s trophy cabinet in 2017. The show does tap into the eternal love of secrets and spies, and present concerns about underhand global dealings, you can’t deny it, but it’s no Tinker Tailor.
The Night Manager is undoubtedly a polished, well-made piece of television, but two episodes could have been lost and it still would have remained a lean, tense spy vehicle. What’s more, it only truly lived up to expectations because its finale came up trumps in such spectacular style. However, at least the show appears to know where to stop – if you believe recent comments from the show’s stars, anyway. However, the BBC has as yet refused to comment on the second-series speculation, so we may have to be careful. With TV, as with everything else, looks can be deceiving.