This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because both the novel and the television adaptation prominently feature the element of transgression.
|Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, in AMC's adaptation of' John le Carré's The Night Manager.|
“[Pure Intelligence] meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere.”– John le Carré, The Night Manager
“Guns go where the power is…Armed power’s what keeps the peace. Unarmed power does not last five minutes. First rule of stability.”– Richard Roper, in John le Carré's The Night Manager
Note: This review contains spoilers.
Part of what made John le Carré’s version of the Cold War so fascinating was the way it avoided a Manichean view of the universe. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt were qualities absent in earlier examples of the thriller from Le Queux, Buchan or Fleming but not in a le Carré Cold War novel. Only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side – decent, compassionate and endowed with a healthy skepticism – and he believed that Karla’s fanaticism would be his undoing. However, Karla defected for the love of his lost daughter. Smiley regarded himself as an archetypal liberal – reasonable with measured responses – but he could sustain a murderous hatred for someone who betrayed him, an antipathy that could cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Smiley became Karla: the Soviet spymaster ordered the murder of agents while Smiley did not. Smiley believed in the power of Western democracy but feared that if his side succumbed to Karla’s methods, the decencies he professed will become illusions and feared that he could lose his own humanity. While he agonized over these moral conundrums, Smiley and the intelligence services were civil servants who pursued their opposite numbers. Communist agents were often ruthless murderers but, unless they were moles inside British intelligence, Smiley (or le Carré) did not regard them as evil villains. Then the Cold War ended and le Carré became an angry man.
That anger radiates throughout le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager (1993). It is as if the author is questioning whether the principles that inspired the West to fight the Cold War were nothing but hollow rhetoric. If its purpose was designed to protect freedom and capitalism, how is Richard Roper – a wealthy and powerful illegal arms and drugs smuggler operating out of the Bahamas to peddle weapons to anyone who will provide him with a profit and admirer of the odious Idi Amin – possible? Masquerading as a respectable business magnate, he is frequently described as “the worst man in the world” – and le Carré is not intending any sense of irony – because Roper’s greed and callousness without any redeeming features, render him a villain rarely depicted in the Cold War novels.
The villainy extends to the intelligence service. With George Smiley comfortably ensconced in retirement, the “espiocrats” are running their “Pure Intelligence” operation – whose sole purpose is to collect intelligence – headed by the shamelessly corrupt Geoffrey Darker, who with his counterparts in the CIA turn a blind eye to any violation of the law and human decency for sake of strengthening their economic and political interests. Pitted against Darker and his ilk, that includes unscrupulous British politicians, is the arms and drugs enforcement agency, “an under-funded, under-wanted agency” whose purpose is to capture and punish criminals. The agency is spearheaded by ex-intelligence officer Leonard Burr, sharing the decency and skepticism of his mentor Smiley, who serves under the tutelage of Rex Goodhew, an idealistic reformer who is no match for the guile and machinations of Darker whom Burr regards as “his personal anti-Christ.” Note how le Carré’s plays on the names as to signify that the ambiguity of his earlier novels will not be in evidence here.
Burr and Goodhew target Roper, who is putting together “a deal to end all deals” with an arms-for-drugs score that involves the Colombian cocaine gangs and distribution of the drugs to Central and Eastern Europe in order to “poison kids and ruin lives and make mega millions.” The enforcement unit, which includes sympathetic American colleagues, recognizes that it needs to plant an agent inside Roper’s inner circle to secure the evidence necessary to convict and incarcerate him. Burr pursues Jonathan Pine, handsome, guilt-ridden and above all inscrutable – a valuable character trait in a good spy – who, as a former soldier killed an unarmed kid in Ireland. Pine also feels responsible for the death of the temptress Sophie, a mistress of one of Roper’s cronies, but a woman Pine comes to love while he was the hotel night manager in Cairo during the first Gulf War. When she entrusts him with a document detailing a Roper arms and chemicals transaction, Pine promptly turns it over to a friend at the British embassy and it ends up in the wrong hands at British intelligence thereby sealing her gruesome fate. Pine’s weakness throughout the novel is his penchant for becoming involved with the wrong women.
Driven by a personal vendetta against Roper, Pine is susceptible to Burr’s attempt to recruit him as a spy for an undercover operation that is designed to smash Roper’s deal. Le Carré is at his best as he details Pine’s transformation from hotelier to internationally wanted criminal washing up in northern Quebec where he is soon to meet up with Roper. Likewise in the television adaptation, writer David Marr and the award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World), deftly dramatize Pine’s fabricated criminal career with an intricate cover story changing the locale to where he and Roper first encounter each other to the exotic site of Majorca, Spain.
The foregoing is a thumbnail sketch of both the plot involving Pine’s penetration into the Roper entourage and the subplot about what first may appear to be a bureaucratic turf war, at least it does to Burr’s superior, Goodhew, until it becomes deadly. Most readers will be more engaged with the more dramatic Pine-Roper plot, with which le Carré, mounts the most suspense, but I think the author is more animated in detailing how the corruption and collusion at the highest political and intelligence levels allow the Richard Ropers of the world to prevail. And yet le Carré makes Burr the moral centre of his account and gives him some of the cleverest lines: “When God finished putting together Dickey Roper … He took a deep breath and shuddered a bit, then He ran up our Jonathan to restore the ecological balance.” Not surprisingly, the author provides roughly equal space to both of the interwoven threads.
|Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager. (Photo: Des Willie)|
Some readers will be disappointed with the absence of similarities between the hunters and hunted that distinguished the earlier novels. But I think that the changed international geo-political landscape, wherein political expediency and naked greed cannot be shielded with an ideological cover, helps to explain the difference in tone between The Night Manager and the Cold War novels. Some critics have even suggested that le Carré wrote a superior James-Bond thriller but, in addition to the glamour and derring-do – hallmarks of the Bond output – that are relatively absent in Manager, in the Fleming novels good invariably triumphs over evil.
How can the same be said for The Night Manager considering that Burr’s paltry Enforcement Unit is no match for the power of the so-called Purists, their Whitehall masters, the British arms industry, along with their Langley counterparts who all expect to profit from Roper’s transactions. Unlike Burr who harbours few illusions, Goodhew cannot believe that a turf war would descend to the level in which the Purists would sabotage a sting operation and jeopardize the life of an agent until he is approached with a bribe and one of Darker’s men attempts to kill him. Although Burr is obsessed with Roper – similar to Smiley’s obsession with Karla – he does not allow that obsession to trump his basic decency. When he realizes that Pine’s cover is broken, he breaks every rule and jeopardizes his own career to save his agent. He accomplishes that with an ingenious bluff: unless Roper releases Pine and his woman, Jed, he (Burr) will have Roper arrested. In the quid pro quo, Roper’s current shipments can proceed unmolested if he releases the couple (and enables Burr to resettle them in England with a new identity). Burr’s gamble that Roper’s greed will trump his desire for revenge pays off. When Roper scores on his most lucrative operation, le Carré describes him feeling “in a state of grace,” hardly the triumph of the forces of light defeating the forces of darkness. The bleak and inconclusive ending, that leaves Roper free to operate with impunity and corrupt officials to remain unblemished while Burr and his colleagues are discredited, underscores the author’s trenchant insights: how easy it is to sell weapons internationally and that idealism and good intentions are insufficient to defeat the power of greed and corruption at the highest levels.
How well does the BBC/AMC lavish television adaptation of The Night Manager fare? Screen writer, David Farr wisely compresses a densely-written and structurally complex novel. He deletes the extended Burr-Pine conversations, Burr’s extensive activities in America, and erases le Carré’s anger over the First Gulf War while toning down the author’s cynicism over the culture of corruption in the public service. Instead, Marr offers a linear narrative and incorporates some welcome changes even though, as I will indicate later, I do have some troubling reservations about some of those alterations.
Director Susanne Bier decorates the story with a cinematic high gloss of gorgeous backdrops that seduces the viewer, as it does Pine, into Roper’s luxurious lifestyle and immense power, only to discover how dangerous the foundation is that supports that privileged world. (Watching the series, I was reminded of Anthony Minghella’s sumptuous The Talented Mr. Ripley, though I should point out that Pine, as he remembers Sophia, is no Ripley.) Bier introduces an interesting mirroring between Roper and Pine, a feature absent from the novel. As she also demonstrated with her choreographed warlord scenes in A Better World, she is adept at directing action scenes such as the apparent kidnapping of Roper’s son in a restaurant. Equally strong is her ability to extract nuanced performances from her actors.
|Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper in The Night Manager. (Photo: Des Willie)|
The six-part miniseries is updated to 2011 and the fall of Egypt’s modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, after the uprising in Tunisia set in motion the Arab Spring. Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) – now a veteran of the Iraq War instead of Northern Ireland (a valuable background given his later need for martial skills) – is the eponymous protagonist at a luxury hotel in Cairo. Given his war experience, it makes sense that Pine appears preternaturally calm amid the chaos – a quality that serves him well later when he has inveigled himself into Roper’s inner circle – walking through the streets of Cairo as tear gas explodes and riots break out all around him. His job is to keep the hotel visitors safe in the midst of a revolution. Pine is polite, charming and astonishingly handsome but when he scans the document that details the arms and napalm that Roper is planning to sell to counter-revolutionaries, his inscrutable mask momentarily slips. Later when he has penetrated Roper’s domain, Hiddleston is marvelous at retaining Pine’s sang-froid despite challenging circumstances. (I can see how the comparison with the unflappable James Bond is made.)
After the tragedy of what happened to Pine’s love, Sophia – described above – four years later, Pine now works at the posh Meisters hotel, the switch from Zurich up the road to Zermatt where the billionaire Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) is helicoptering in for a visit with his unsavory crew of thugs and fixit minions and his girlfriend/mall, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). In a small but significant change from the novel, Roper conceals his corruption behind transparent philanthropy to give him a greater veneer of respectability, even delivering a TED-like talk about the benefits of the free market. Laurie is a splendid villain, at times alluringly smooth, exuding a cool charm conveying both an attraction for and a simmering distrust towards Pine and Jed when he (with good reason) suspects her of disloyalty. It is clear from the outset that the Pine-Roper relationship and their wider circle, that include Roper’s reptilian factotum, Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran (Tom Hollander) who takes an instant hatred toward Pine, and their Middle Eastern warlords that have superseded the novel’s Columbian drug barons, is the primary focus in this production.
The British bureaucratic infighting is relegated to the background, probably a good decision to retain the interests of a television audience. The setting for the turf wars resemble the gray (albeit smoke free) backrooms that we are accustomed to seeing in a le Carré film or television adaptation. One other notable change is that Farr has given Burr a gender change to reflect the makeup of modern security services. Instead of Leonard, we are introduced to Angela (Olivia Colman from Broadchurch) incorruptible, tenacious and as courageous as her male avatar. The script reveals the source of her obsession with punishing Roper. At one point she remembers the first time she met him. It was in the Middle East after the use of saran gas on a children’s field day which massacred hundreds. “He saw that and thought business,” a reminder of how indifferent Roper is to human suffering. Once Angela witnessed that horror, she does not allow herself to be intimidated by sinister British colleagues who are on Roper’s payroll. Her scenes with fellow MI6 agents (including Outlander’s diabolical Tobias Menzies, a shrewd casting decision) are among the most chilling of the series.
For the first four episodes, Marr’s changes and compression capture the essence and the spirit of the novel. In the penultimate program, however, a reader becomes alerted to a major change, one of which I cannot specify details but one that telegraphs that the final episode will be substantially different than the novel. I suggested above that that the allegation made by some critics that le Carré crafted a James Bond pastiche has little validity. Yet the television adaptation in the final episode is closer in spirit to the fantasy world of a Bond production. I wonder how le Carré, who is an executive producer of the series and makes a cameo appearance, felt about the denouement where justice, including an expression of the rough variety, prevails in a manner unimaginable in the novel.
The alteration does not change my assessment that the series is quality television; it is emotionally engaging, flecked with of Hitchcockian-like suspense and is enriched with strong acting performances. Moreover, with the release of the Panama Papers that exposed real-world corruption and tax evasion, the novel and the television adaptation have acquired greater currency. And yet I wonder how audiences would have reacted if Marr and Bier had hewed more closely to the original ending