4:10pm PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: 'The Night Manager' Glosses Over Its Flaws With Beauty and Talent
The Night Manager, a co-production from AMC and BBC, may have cracked the code on how to get good critical reaction in this time of overstuffed television competition and abrupt putting-down of inferior fare.
That knock-about-the-nethers thing that critics often do to series that dare to be unimpressive or uninspiring in this hyper-competitive Platinum Age was mostly missing in early reviews of Night Manager, a lavish, updated take on a 1993 John Le Carre novel that feels like a modern James Bond film you leave before the bloated part where it all gets bad.
The miniseries stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, and they are a combination of brilliant and sexy and fun to watch, wringing the most out of writer David Farr's story and luxuriating in the high-definition-loving locales of Switzerland, Morocco, Spain, the U.K., Egypt and Turkey. Director Susanne Bier realizes the palette she's working with here and swoops in and around all of these beautiful sights like she's filming a travelogue or a 2016 version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
How could Bier not swing the camera between Laurie, playing a vigilant, dangerous, charming arms dealer, and Hiddleston, a former soldier turned, yes, night manager at upscale hotels, who come together in a tense le Carre plot with dangerous machinations and convoluted conspiracies at nearly every turn? Add in Elizabeth Debicki as the tall American plaything for Laurie's character (who, can you blame her, acts out with Hiddleston) and it's like eye candy overload.
It's hard not to rave about how much joy can be derived from drinking in The Night Manager, but it's also hard to ignore many of its surprising shortcomings that often got glossed over in the early praise. But since Night Manager doesn't stay around very long — six 90-minute episodes with about 30 minutes reserved for ads — and it has two amazing actors playing off of each other against draw-dropping backgrounds, I guess a little slack should be expected.
Or should it?
I get the feeling that if Night Manager had to fill 13 episodes it might be taxed beyond its capacity and exposed as glossy dross that couldn't sustain its early promise. But not being able to ever know that is an asset — and maybe the future of hit-and-run television like this.
Frankly, in such an overwhelming television environment, I'll take Night Manager and its Roman candle lifespan over some denser, more ambitious series that unravels disappointedly the longer it goes and before you know it, you've spilled 10 hours of your life with three left for closure.
Yet, it struck me watching the mini after the initial raves (The Hollywood Reporter reviewed it — favorably — out of the Berlin International Film Festival in February), that, as enjoyable as it is, meatier offerings like The Americans on FX or Outlander on Starz or The Path on Hulu have a harder go of it, both being ongoing serial stories and having to deliver multiple episodes each season.
The rewards for that are often less glamorous — The Americans gets to be shamefully overlooked by Emmy voters for reasons that escape most critics, and something like The Path has to fight to get noticed and to continue sustaining interest.
Of course, every show has a burden to bear. That's to be expected given the aforementioned and belabored point about there being too much television and so much of it being shockingly excellent. If anything, Night Manager may just be the latest proof that getting in and out quickly is a better critical strategy than serialized shows. Hell, you can even cherry-on-top improve on the concept if you get a masterful, famous Laurie or a wonderful and sexy Hiddleston to be a part of your efforts, something missing in two superior shows — the two six-episode seasons of Netflix's Happy Valley and the Sundance miniseries The Last Panthers.
A couple of early issues in Night Manager nearly scuttled my ability to enjoy it, despite the magnetic allure of Laurie and Hiddleston, which is doubled when they are onscreen playing off of each other.
Laurie plays arms dealer Richard Roper, whose ability to be virtually traceless has stifled British intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman) for more than a decade. She's obsessed with landing that fish. But in one of those odd starts to the miniseries, Laurie is missing in the first hour as we focus on Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, the night manager in question. Burr will eventually recruit him, but that first hour is fairly dubious with its intent — and people who have read the Le Carre books will likely attribute this to the efforts made to take some of its denseness away to make it play faster and with more gloss.
In any case, viewers would be forgiven for thinking that Pine was, all along, undercover, not just a night manager at a swanky hotel in Morocco. It certainly feels like he's a spy — again, the Bond vibe is strong throughout — and he immediately gets information about an arms deal passed along to him by a beautiful, connected woman (in short because he's hot and has a genteel, British demeanor) that he in turn passes on to a friend in British intelligence — wink, wink. As trouble erupts, back-channel information has led Burr to Pine, and she implores him in one frantic phone call to go rush, from his night manager's stand at the hotel, to save the woman who gave him the information because her life is in peril. He does — like a super agent. He's dashing as he dashes to her aid. But it's too late and, knowing that Roper was indirectly part of her death, Pine seethes.
OK, except Pine really is just a night manager. Sure, he's got a military background and he's a well-bred Brit who wants to do right, but these early seeds of wanting to ensnare Roper and bring him to justice seem like a real reach.
It's like that Terrence Malick gem from The Thin Red Line when one soldier says, "What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?" A normal person — a night manager, if you will — would just stay the hell out of it.
Years later, Pine is at another amazing hotel — this time in Switzerland — where he inexplicably runs into Roper again, gets wind of yet another arms deal and alerts Burr again. She turns him into an operative.
Now, there are reasons given, but for me they weren't good enough to make me realistically believe that a lonely night manager would suddenly turn into a badass operative (I have two episodes left, so maybe there's a logical reveal — but all indications are there's not).
It was hard enough just imagining Hiddleston as lonely.
(As a side note, I couldn't help thinking that the miniseries — nah, the serialized show — I wanted was about a lonely night manager who lives out his days in the service of others, in the confines of glamorous hotels, something eternally missing from his life.)
As for the miniseries that was actually made, don't get me started on the detour it takes to create a believable badass backstory for Pine — because I flat-out didn't buy that for a second. Hiddleston is clearly more lover than fighter and didn't once give off a dangerous vibe. He doesn't strike fear into you. He strikes lust into you.
Beyond that, one more bit of dubious plot was a story-stopper for me. Pine is able to ingratiate himself with Roper by doing something that gets Roper's loyalty. I don't want to spoil that part — it's not important. What is important is that savvy Roper, he of the impenetrable life that British intelligence can't crack, recognizes Pine (in a place far, far away from Switzerland) as the night manager of said Swiss hotel. Never mind what good deed Pine has just done. How does Roper not think (or say out loud), "What the hell is this night manager doing following me all over the globe?"
That would raise my suspicions. And, while it did raise some worry in the Roper camp, there apparently wasn't enough fish stink on it.
And that's fine, really. I went on to really enjoy so much more about Night Manager than iffy elements in the plotting. In fairness, there is good dialogue. Other parts of the plot are not just strong and convincing, they are creative.
And what it came down to for me was I was happy to see Laurie, who is magnetic in his evilness here — a performance I rewound on several occasions — play off of Hiddleston, who is impossible to root against. When a red flag went up, that seemed to be when either Bier conveniently took flight with the cinematography to document the gorgeous international surroundings, or Debicki disrobed.
Like a Bond movie, part of the purpose seems to be in the pleasure of it all, not in the smarts of it all. And at a manageable six episodes, what's the crime, really? I'm not going to stop watching.
But that attitude, which is prevalent around the miniseries, certainly hints at the aforementioned cracked code of beauty and brevity adding a consequential assist to efficiently accomplished work. I say this because come awards season, something like The Night Manager is as easy to remember as it is easy to go down. That could hurt, say, something like The Last Panthers. And though it would compete in a different category than Night Manager, such glossy allure is precisely what inches out, at crunch time, a series along the lines of Happy Valley, which has no Hiddleston and no Mallorca to gaze upon.