Why we’re watching... The Night Manager

It’s halfway in and we’re hooked on the BBC’s lavish new adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel The Night Manager, featuring Tom Hiddleston as a hotelier drawn into a dangerous world of international arms dealing.

Gosta Johansson

The Night Manager (BBC One HD, Ep 1 transmission date: 21/2/2016)

The Night Manager (BBC One HD, Ep 1 transmission date: 21/2/2016)
Credit: BBC/The Ink Factory/Des Willie

It appears the BBC has raised the bar a bit this year. No sooner has Andrew Davies’ very impressive adaptation of War & Peace finished than we are treated to a no-expense-spared take on John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager, a tale of international arms dealing, shadowy spy agencies and revenge.

This big-budget co-production between the BBC, AMC (makers of Breaking Bad) and The Ink Factory has attracted a TV directing debut by Susanne Bier, the acclaimed Danish director of films such as Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) and Academy Award winner In a Better World (2010), as well as a very impressive cast. Tom Hiddleston is Jonathan Pine, the hotel night manager of the title, a man whose thirst for revenge sees him plunged into the world of charismatic arms dealer Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. Pine’s intelligence operative ‘handler’ is played by Olivia Colman, in one of the few major changes to the novel, where the character was male.

The Night Manager (BBC One HD, Ep 2 transmission date: 28/2/2016)

It has taken more than 20 years for le Carré’s novel to make it onto our screens. Published in 1993, its rights were quickly bought up, and over the years several attempts were made to turn it into a film. For various reasons they came to nothing, and Hugh Laurie himself once tried to buy the rights, with a view to playing Pine. The complexity of the plot has often been quoted as one of the stumbling blocks, but turning it into a six-part TV series – six ad-break-free hours – has allowed it the space needed to tell the story.

Superficially this is John le Carré given the James Bond treatment – exotic locations, ostentatious luxury and a super-villain with his own lair. A six-star hotel in Cairo, a snowy eagle’s nest on a mountain top in Zermatt and a magnificent villa on a peninsula in Mallorca – here, we’re a long way from the dark and drab offices, stuffy clubs and rainy streets of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And it sets out its stall early, with some of the most gorgeously slick opening credits, since, well, the last Bond film – all deadly weapons and luxury items morphing into one in tasteful golden hues.

But, the ostentatious luxury is not merely an attempt to take on Bond or at updating le Carré for a modern audience used to big-budget TV productions. The glitz and the glamour is also an integral part of the plot as laid out in the novel, and referenced by Susanne Bier; this is wealth as a corrupter.

The Night Manager (BBC One HD, Ep 1 transmission date: 21/2/2016)

Credit: BBC/The Ink Factory/Des Willie

As ex-soldier turned hotelier turned spy Jonathan Pine settles into the world of the super-rich, he risks being seduced by the trappings of wealth. Le Carré’s traitors of the cold war may have been turned by political allegiances, but with that conflict over, ‘won’ by the west and capitalism, a vacuum needs to be filled, a new incentive is needed and this is where power and personal wealth comes in. It’s a point as valid now as when the novel was first published.

Despite the luxury of six hour-long episodes, the complexity of the plot has caused some issues. Although classy and enjoyable, the first two episodes had the sense of a prologue, a setting of the scene for the real story; a lot of things happened and yet it felt strangely slow, a bit disjointed and somewhat unengaging. Hiddleston’s inscrutable expression of a hotel manager never wavered, whether he was being seduced by a Middle-Eastern beauty or plotting the revenge of her death. He certainly looks the part, though his cool and calm demeanour made him difficult to read at first. And though Hugh Laurie definitely has the charisma to pull off the part of Richard Roper, the super-rich jet-setter, we have yet to see the dangerous edge of Richard Roper, the ruthless arms dealer.

The Night Manager (BBC One HD, Ep 2 transmission date: 28/2/2016)

Credit: BBC/The Ink Factory/Des Willie

But, something happened in the third episode. With the prologue over, a sense of purpose and direction settled in. With the action slowed and mostly confined to one location, the human interaction took centre stage, allowing the actors space and time to breathe life into the characters. It was engrossing to see Pine finally drawn out of his shell by the innocence of Richard Roper’s young son and his ethereal yet troubled girlfriend. And we are also beginning to see flashes of the steel behind Roper’s façade.

Le Carré may be a master of intrigue and complex plots but at the heart of his novels has always been the exploration of the hearts, minds and morals of the people inhabiting the shadowy worlds most of us never come across. On the evidence so far Susanne Bier has understood that and I can’t wait to see how it develops over the last three episodes.

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