Adapted from John le Carré’s 1993 novel – his first post-cold war espionage thriller – The Night Manager is BBC drama at its most lavish. Featuring an A-list cast headed up by Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, a screenplay from acclaimed writer David Farr (Hanna, Spooks), and directed by the Danish director Susanne Bier whose 2010 film In A Better World won an Oscar for best foreign language film.
Farr updates le Carré’s novel from the early nineties using the political backdrop of The Arab Spring for a dramatic opening. It is 2011 and former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston) is the night manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo. The Revolution against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is making his western guests nervous. Flirtatious Egyptian guest Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika) asks him to photocopy some documents. He is shocked to discover they appear to show an arms deal. The seller is Richard Roper (Lurie), a billionaire philanthropist.
Pine shares the documents with an Embassy contact who passes them to British Intelligence. The deal comes to the attention of Angela Burr (Colman), head of an international anti-arms unit in London. Burr attempts to intervene, but it is politically expedient for Roper’s sale to go forward. Better to arm the devils you know. This has tragic results for Pine who has become romantically involved with his source.
Four years later Pine is working as night manager at a resort in Switzerland when his path crosses once more with Roper’s.
This opening episode was all about setting up the chess board. Key pieces were introduced with just enough information to capture attention but a lot was held back. Pine is granted a convincing motivation to pass information about Roper’s activities in Switzerland to Burr, but we are given little to explain Burr’s particular enmity towards him. Undercurrents of class run through the tale. Pine plays the part of the archetypal English gentleman well, but when face to face with Roper and his ‘chums’ (including his officious right hand man played by Tom Hollander) he is instantly treated as a servant. Pine has an air of righteousness, but his profession suggests a man hiding from, or running away from the past and trying to isolate himself from people.
The gruff, northern Burr also has class issues to deal with in Westminster but with the added obstacle of her gender. A meeting with a ministerial aide is pointedly ended when the man retires to his club which has a no women policy. Glaring across the Thames at the gleaming MI-6 building, it is clear that Burr has been cast out into the relative wilds of Victoria by her inability to penetrate the old boys’ network of British Intelligence.
The episode ended with a meeting between Burr and Pine. When asked why he had turned in the documents in Cairo, Pine’s response was marvellously proper: “If there’s a man selling a private arsenal to an Egyptian crook and he’s English… and you’re English… and those weapons can cause a lot of pain to a lot of people. Then you just do it.”
Glossy and perfectly cast, with the sort of international locations that you would expect from a Bond film, The Night Manager was gripping and intriguing entertainment. This opening episode merely hinted at the larger story to come but contained enough to bait the hook and bring you back next week.
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