“Nothing quite as pretty as napalm at night,” says the villain Richard Roper (played by Hugh Laurie) in a particularly uncomfortable scene of the six-hour British miniseries, The Night Manager, which is based on the John le Carré novel of the same name. It’s an obvious reference to the classic line delivered by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” It’s also the kind of nasty line that comes naturally to Roper, a man described as “the worst man in the world”. But it feels just a bit too much like Laurie delivering one of his many tongue-in-cheek lines in the TV series House. Which is not to say that Laurie doesn’t give a great performance as the coldhearted arms dealer; it’s just that there’s something a little off in Roper’s House-like one-liners, as there’s something a little off in many parts of The Night Manager.
And yet I absolutely loved watching this thoroughly entertaining series. I mean, as a lover of quiet intelligent conspiracy spy thrillers, gorgeously filmed in exotic locales, how could I not love this show? Especially if you throw in the fine acting of great actors and overall production values that are as good as anything you’ll see at the cinema. I can even forgive the James Bond-like score, because The Night Manager has the feel of Bond films at their best.
The Night Manager stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, who, at the start of the first episode, is working as the night manager in Cairo’s finest hotel during the Arab Spring uprising that ousted Mubarak. The girlfriend of a local crime boss is staying at the hotel and lets Pine know that her boyfriend is purchasing arms from Roper to be used against the protestors. Pine shares this info with a friend in the British Embassy and soon after that the woman Pine has been trying to protect is murdered. Pine is furious with London intelligence (whom he blames for the leak) but hangs onto the phone number of Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), the director of a small intelligence agency in London, because Burr had tried to warn him. Jump ahead four years and Pine is now the night manager at a hotel in Zermatt when Roper and his entourage fly in one night. Pine is suspicious of Roper’s activities and calls Burr, who recruits Pine as her secret undercover spy (secret even from the other British intelligence agencies, whom she suspects of colluding with Roper). Burr wants nothing more than to put an end to Roper’s horrific arms-dealing (which includes not only napalm, but also nerve gas), which Roper carries out under the guise of humanitarian work - supposedly delivering agricultural equipment to war-torn countries. Unfortunately, while putting an end to arms dealing is a lofty goal, there’s a sense that both Burr and Pine are basically in this for revenge.
And so the real suspense begins. And there’s a lot of suspense in The Night Manager, as well as a lot of excellent dialogue. But, as I mentioned, time and again I felt something was off. One of those things was Roper’s willingness to trust a man he should have been too smart to trust. Another was Pine’s bizarre romantic entanglements when the chemistry just wasn’t there. This might have been the result of Hiddleston’s acting or because we never really get into Pine’s head in a satisfactory way (six hours leaves a lot of time for character development). The same can be said of Roper, Roper’s girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), who plays a major role, and Roper’s righthand man, Corky (Tom Hollander), whose sexual orientation was used in the worst possible off-putting way. And while the plot has the necessary twists and turns, too many of them were predictable. Added to these more subtle frustrations is the awful awful ending, which bears no resemblance to the infinitely better ending of le Carrés novel and, in my opinion, flies in the face of whatever good character development has preceded it (i.e. it’s inconsistent).
This all sounds very negative, and should be more than enough to tank the series, so you may be surprised to hear that I’m still considering awarding The Night Manager ****. How can that be, you ask? Well, I’m so glad you asked; here are my reasons:
- Despite the fact that The Night Manager is ostensibly about the psychological battle of wits between Pine and Roper, the series is completely stolen by another character and by an actor who outperforms both Hiddleston and Laurie. That character is Burr (and the actor is Colman). Burr is by far the most sympathetic and well-developed character in the show and Colman’s performance is spot-on; I loved every minute she was on the screen. In the novel, Burr is a man. If Burr had been a man in the series, it would have made The Night Manager another typically male-dominated show. Instead, Burr's presence alone makes it almost a draw. The fact that Burr is a woman in this series may (or may not) have something to do with the fact that the series was directed by one of the world’ s few well-known female directors: Susanne Bier.
- Bier’s direction, which focused, at least visually, on characters, was the only thing that kept Pine and Roper in the game, because she kept the camera on their faces (in countless close-ups). So even though we have far too little background on their characters, we at least can see every nuance of their expressions as they try to decide their next moves (though, as I said, this sometimes felt off).
- While The Night Manager doesn’t focus enough on the horrors of the global arms trade, at least it makes it clear that the sale of arms is a great evil and that it’s all about money rather than about considering the moral issues involved (reminding me of Canada’s recent appalling sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia). Of course, I wish that it was clearer that all arms are evil regardless of who is using them, but it’s a start.
- The Night Manager shows that the CIA and MI6 have no trouble with illegally supporting arms dealers like Roper so that they can control where the weapons are going. You know by now what I think of such agencies, so exposing their inherent corruption works for me.
- Heh, it’s my kind of show and I can’t really expect them to always make it my way. But that ending - seriously??? Why???
Sigh. The Night Manager. It’s worth a look and I’m giving it ***+ - ****. My mug is up.