Let’s start with acknowledging that there were always great expectations for The Night Manager. An adaptation of a John le Carre novel starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie jetting across some of the most gorgeous and dramatic backdrops in the globe … it wasn’t going to be hard for this one to misfire. And sure enough, AMC’s engrossing miniseries (running a brisk 6 episodes) delivers on every front.
The screenplay, by David Farr, updates le Carre’s mid-90s novel to present day, with a brief beginning during the Arab Spring of 2011. Here, in a Cairo hotel, we meet Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a handsome professional seen as he emerges in a crisp, linen button-down from a heaving throng of protestors. Could their be a more glorious way to introduce Hiddleston, with his steely-eyed gaze and perfectly-coifed locks defying Cairo’s summer heat?
That polish and vogue sheen that makes this adaptation so rich also gets to the very heart of The Night Manager’s story about the seduction of wealth and power, and one can’t help be occasionally transported, spiritually, to Anthony Minghella’s sumptuous The Talented Mr. Ripley. Like that story, The Night Manager’s glamour is a glaze over a permeating darkness, one that kicks off the story but also plays to the core of who Jonathan Pine really is — if he truly knows himself.
Pine, a former soldier, seems fairly happy working as a respected but virtually anonymous hotelier, until a brief entanglement with a woman sleeping with the wrong man pulls him into the heart of the international arms trade. At its center is Richard Roper (played with wonderful charm and menace by Hugh Laurie), a billionaire philanthropist who also happens to be supplying evildoers the world over with some of the most powerful arms and nerve gases ever created.
When Pine is offered the opportunity to do the right thing and pass along secret documents to the British government implicating Roper, he does so bravely. But his actions begin to reveal Roper’s control of the upper echelons, the intelligent agencies, and the lawmakers of their shared homeland, and a driven Pine ends up working with a fierce, rogue intelligence officer (Angela Burr, played by the fantastic Olivia Colman) to go deep undercover in order to bring Roper down.
Infiltrating Roper’s inner circle isn’t difficult for Pine, who we watch first create an alias and a criminal history. He’s smart, handsome, and is able to play his new role with aplomb in a way that is what perhaps made him so perfect for a life in hospitality — he can make anyone believe what they want about him, and is a loner, a chameleon, a blank slate who Burr (who has been hunting the cunning Roper for decades) can use. But, Burr must also keep her mole a secret from the already compromised British intelligence agency, whose higher-ups are in league with Roper, putting Pine’s life in extreme danger.
The Night Manager is so much more than a story built on spy craft, though, as it seamlessly weaves in fantastic bits of character backgrounds, and takes the time to really explore Roper’s gilded world built upon a mound of bones. Roper is flanked by his flamboyant and suspicious right-hand man, Major Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander) as well as his young, beautiful, and haunted paramour Jed (the glamorous Elizabeth Debicki). Pine comes into conflict with Corky almost immediately, and strikes up an ill-advised connection with Jed (who can blame them, as they are nearly mirror images of each other — statuesque blondes with a deep loneliness) while also keeping in Roper’s good graces by playing a difficult con.
A host of other familiar faces from British TV and movies make memorable appearances in the miniseries, including Allistair Petrie, David Harewood (playing, amusingly, an American), Tobias Menzies, Russell Tovey, and Katherine Kelly, but Laurie and Hiddleston are the series’ dueling center. Roper is fascinated by Pine perhaps more than he trusts him, and yet he gives him entry into his world out of a kind of wary respect. Pine loses himself in the splendor but still maintains his determination to make Roper — coined early on as “the worst man in the world” — pay for his sins.
The Night Manager is splendid television, moving at a quick narrative clip that never feels hurried. In fact, many of its postcard-like scenes (directed by the talented Susanne Bier) are sumptuously languid. That juxtaposition of beauty with the tension of Pine’s mission and the uncertainty of Roper’s actions creates a fantastically rich tapestry of both form and function. As Pine is fitted in a made-to-measure suit on a sun-soaked deck and whisked off to make a $3 billion dollar transaction in Switzerland for Roper, Burr recounts — in a musty, fluorescent-lit London cubicle, the first time she met Richard Roper. It was after the use of saran gas on a children’s field day while she was in the Middle East, melting and massacring hundreds. “He saw that,” she says, eyes tearing with sadness and anger over the memory, “and thought: business.”
The Night Manager has something for everyone — fans of spy craft, fans of cinematic television, fans of good storytelling or just of Tom Hiddleston (or Hugh Laurie, for that matter). It will pull you into its story completely and allow you inhabit its world, but at a terrible cost: brevity.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
The Night Manager premieres Tuesday, April 19th on AMC.