If Tom Hiddleston’s performance in AMC’s The Night Manager is responsible for the public’s recent push to see him as the next James Bond, one can’t help wonder if such casting would be anything but a letdown. After crafting the leading man career most actors can only dream of, his performance in The Night Manager is one of his very best he’s committed to screen. Sure he’s as stylish and action ready as Bond (maybe not on the level of Daniel Craig, but clearly capable of throwing a punch or two), but his Jonathan Pine has something more too often lacking in franchise action… depth. Pine is a good man, trying to do the moral thing, desperately trying to avoid slipping when around the greed and corruption of a man like Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Pine’s no anti-hero, and the miniseries is all the better because Hiddleston and the creators know that’s why he’s all the more interesting.
Both Hiddleston’s Pine and Olivia Colman’s Angela Burr are examples of these good people trying to avoid being tarnished by the corrupt world they find themselves (and try as they might, there’s no getting out untarnished). Colman’s Burr has been changed from book to screen from man to woman, which allows the movie to feel a bit updated from John le Carré’s 1993 novel and adds some modern day tension. It’s all under the surface (as are commentary regarding Burr’s pregnancy), but there is a bit of the feeling in her scenes with fellow MI5 agents (including Outlander’s devilish Tobias Menzies) that women like her and men like Joel Steadman (Supergirl’s David Harewood) are crashing the party enjoyed by the old school. Angela works hard in a cold, crowded office, taking pride in being on the right side of the law, while the big boys enjoy the comfy offices by playing with the people they should be punishing. People like Richard Roper.
And boy is Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper a great bad guy. Years ago, this is exactly the type of role, which would have seemed tailor-made for an actor like Alan Rickman or Christopher Walken; the brilliant, charming baddie. And who knew Laurie would be so good at being so bad. He’s not bad the way House was the unpleasant anti-hero. He’s bad because he’s the kind of man who can make you smile and cringe at the same time; all cool charm and smiles, at once romancing his girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) and suspecting her of disloyalty. Loyalty comes back again and again in this series, as Roper tosses collaborators and their wives out of the inner-circle (if not worse) when he suspects them of anything. And this increasing sense of the inner circle needing to be tightly controlled is the one area the series may stumble… Jonathan seems to be let in a bit too quickly considering Roper’s suspicious nature.
But this a minor stumble in one of the best miniseries of recent history. Screenwriter David Farr (having a great year with this and The Ones Below) adapts le Carré’s novel with precision rarely seen in adaptions of the author’s stories. Six episodes seem the perfect length to capture le Carré’s unique, methodical storytelling while still feeling tightly crafted. Farr and director Susanne Bier find a smart pacing for the series; the show has a certain slow burn but at just six episodes its inherent brevity avoids frustrating impatient audiences.
The show benefits by taking a cinematic visual approach, hiring Susanna Bier to helm all six hours. This is a program that could have easily become a “prestige project,” considering le Carré’s pedigree, which could have easily weighed the whole project down. Instead, Bier decorates the story with a cinematic high gloss that makes you want to devour it as a piece of pure cinematic entertainment. The show’s vivid colors in Roper’s world of perfect weather and clear skies, compared to Burr’s cold, grey London makes the show seem lush, and it’s easy to sit back and just get sucked into a bit of popcorn entertainment. Then they throw in a political comment here and there, or a moment of truly unsettling violence, and you realize that despite the fun you’re having watching, this has something worth saying. Bier proves she can do action brilliantly, not only creating some strong sequences but infusing the entire show with a continuous sense of movement.
The brilliance of a show like The Night Manager is the tightness of its storytelling. With a six hour running time, it feels like it could be no shorter or longer than it is without forgoing how satisfying a watch it really is. Farr’s script and Bier’s direction suggests they trimmed the fat to make a show that moves from episode to episode. Each episode satisfies on its own, while enticing you with the sense that one more episode might be even better. Hiddleston, Laurie and Colman standout for their exceptional work, but Debicki’s mysterious Jed more than stands on her own…as do the supporting performances by English character actors Tom Hollander, Alistaire Petrie, Natasha Little, Harewood and Menzies, each given characters which benefit by making this a miniseries, rather than a movie. Like the cool water scenes the series keeps returning to, The Night Manager is one of the most refreshingly enjoyable programs worth indulging in this summer.
Rating: 9 out of 10