Jonathan Pine, the hero of The Night Manager, might have a syrupy voice and skin tanned to a glowing bronze, but in other respects he’s a classic John le Carré creation. Pine (Tom Hiddleston) makes his living unshowily and in the dark, at a swank hotel, juggling front-desk phone calls, overseeing the rotation of room keys and sending cocktails to well-paying guests. He has seen violence (two tours, Iraq) and maintains a fatalistic resignation toward his unnatural, nocturnal profession (“I think it chose me,” he tells one guest). And he has that particular set of skills that spy fiction depends on, a devastating toolbox that he hides from those around him: When, in the Cairo-set opening episode of this six-part miniseries, an heir to the all-powerful Hamid family asks the hotel manager in a moment of crisis whether he understands Arabic, Pine instinctively feigns ignorance.
The world of John le Carré’s spy novels — serpentine stories with global implications, powerful characters with catchy code names, secrets and lies spread across rainy, colorless London — has long proven fertile ground for movie and television projects. But le Carré’s writing is so detail-thick and knottily plotted that most adapters must choose between prioritizing cynical, moody atmospherics or clear, no-questions-asked narrative speed. Two recent big-screen attempts — Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man (2014) — have opted for the former tactic: In both movies, the plot simmers slowly, murkily, on the back burner, deferring to the grinding malaise and faithful defeatism of the tone.
In this take on The Night Manager, which comes to AMC on April 19 after a successful run on the BBC, director Susanne Bier (whose recent In a Better World won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) selects the opposite approach. Like Pine, she suppresses dense, inconvenient knowledge for a particular purpose — in her case, narrative legibility and momentum. Writer David Farr (Hanna), for his part, has updated the source material’s historical context — the book was published in the post–Cold War climate of 1993; the show opens in the heat of the Arab Spring in 2011 — and straightened out le Carré’s timeline.
Of course, the man at the story’s center still has multiple aliases, a contact in British intelligence and a demeanor that moves people to confess secrets. It’s this lattermost attribute that gets Pine in trouble in The Night Manager, once Sophie (Aure Atika), a hotel patron and the mistress of a younger-generation Hamid, asks Pine to copy documents containing information about an arms deal (“napalm,” “chlorine gas”) that incriminates both the Hamids and an organization led by a mysterious party named Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie).
Unbeknownst to Sophie, Pine has whipped up a separate batch of copies to send to his connection in London intelligence, Angela Burr, a determined, fuck-the-rulebook operative who works out of a small outfit where the elevator’s broken and the heating’s on the fritz. (A very pregnant Olivia Colman slays the role, which was written as male in le Carré’s novel.)
Not long after, Pine finds a battered Sophie lying in a pool of her own blood and an officer unwilling to investigate the possible connection to the Hamids. A closeup on Hiddleston’s frustrated face leads into a “four years later” flash-forward, where the show picks up with Pine at his current hotelier gig in a remote section of snow-blanketed Switzerland. When a certain unforgettable name — Richard Onslow Roper — surfaces on the registry, alarm bells sound for Pine, setting in motion a plot of chess moves and dual identities. Under the oversight of Burr, Pine remakes himself as a bad-boy biker in a leather jacket, concocting a criminal persona that will help him invade Roper’s inner circle and expose the man’s deadly, billion-dollar weapons business.
Bier and company’s philosophy of clarifying continuity at times borders on hilarity: In the fourth episode, an exchange in a park ends with the planning of an imminent rendezvous in the King's College library; when the scene actually happens, all of five minutes later, the onscreen text (“King's College Library”) accompanying an interior shot of a library hardly seems necessary. Bier’s style is indistinct, throwaway, with too many scenes coasting on a predictable pattern of an opening wide shot establishing a luxurious setting (pool, restaurant, balcony); a move-in to two players caught up in an important talk; and a concluding return, once the conversation’s over, to the wide shot for dubious dramatic punctuation.
But if there’s something to be missed in the lack of heavy silences, plot-free pauses and shots of people smoking stoically after a failed operation, Bier’s straightforward direction crystallizes le Carré’s plot and suspense — and allows her actors to run free. This is especially true of the more ambiguous, villainous roles. As Roper’s closest associate, Tom Hollander excels in the loose-cannon part — his wild-eyed, creepo-supreme Corky is a drinker and an animalistically protective right-hand man who grows increasingly jealous as his boss gets closer to Pine. (One memorable scene has Hollander throwing a slurred-words tantrum over a lobster salad.)
Laurie, meanwhile, relishes the evil of Roper, a venal creature who makes his fortune off the suffering of others. The actor loosens up as his character grows more unhinged, eventually coming to veritably hiss most of his lines — as when he coldly observes, “We’re going to have to reschedule that meeting,” after a suicide-by-hanging compromises his itinerary. And as Roper’s lover Jed, Elizabeth Debicki credibly complicates a role that is at first unsurprising trophy-spouse stuff (Champagne, bubble baths, skinny-dipping) but comes to encompass a poignant range of emotional allegiances. Debicki sells not just Jed’s genuine (if unfortunate) affection for Roper but also the skeletons from the character’s dreary past life that continue to claw at her.
But it’s Hiddleston’s performance that best illustrates both the triumphs and shortcomings of the show. With his sharp, birdlike features, Hiddleston has no problem conveying Pine’s laser intelligence, but he never quite accesses the melancholy so central to le Carré’s fiction. Perhaps the most penetrating image of le Carré’s The Night Manager — one left out of the show — is a memory Pine has of a time when he was accidentally trapped, with doubtful chance of escape, in a hotel wine cellar. If he gets rescued, Pine promises himself, he will land a more exciting job, purchase a boat, seek out new friends — the kinds of things most people dream about doing before they get back to going on with their lives. This bottomless inner life is mostly absent from this version of Pine, but Hiddleston sure keeps the show humming along, scarcely giving us a chance to notice.