'The Night Manager': Berlin Review

Tinker, tailor, soldier, concierge.

Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie share top billing in this globe-trotting TV miniseries based on a novel by spy thriller maestro John le Carré.

If we can believe recent reports that Daniel Craig has hung up James Bond's tuxedo for good, the timing could hardy be better for Tom Hiddleston's glossy new TV miniseries, which plays like a six-hour audition tape for the globe-trotting spy franchise. Based on a John le Carré novel and directed by Danish Oscar-winner Susanne Bier (A Better World), The Night Manager premieres on the big screen at the Berlinale ahead of its BBC television debut this weekend, with a U.S. launch slated for April on AMC.

The BBC has a lot riding on Night Manager. With a budget of $30 million, this is the state-owned U.K. broadcaster's most costly drama to date, and their first le Carré adaptation in more than three decades. The two opening chapters shown in Berlin suggest clear mainstream ratings potential, striking a balance between sumptuous cinematic spectacle and populist TV thriller tropes. The commercial track record of author, director and cast will also be strong selling points.

Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine, a suave English ex-soldier working in a Cairo hotel, where he becomes inextricably drawn into the orbit of Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a billionaire arms dealer masquerading as a philanthropic tycoon. The grudge turns personal after Pine has a brief affair with one of Roper's glamorous associates, Sophie (Aure Atika), who is later murdered for leaking his secrets. Guilt-wracked and partially responsible, Pine tries to get his British diplomatic contacts to pursue Roper, but hits a brick wall of cynical government self-interest.

Four years later, Pine finally seizes the chance to serve Roper a cold dish of revenge after a chance encounter in the Swiss alps. Assuming a murky new identity provided by rogue intelligence officer Burr (Olivia Colman), he concocts a perilous and ludicrously implausible plot to infiltrate Roper's heavily guarded headquarters in Spain. A deadly game begins, both men unsure if the other is friend or foe, asset or assassin.

Published in 1993, The Night Manager was le Carré's first post-Cold War novel. It was immediately optioned by Paramount, with Sydney Pollack attached to direct. A later attempt saw Brad Pitt sign up to produce and star as Pine. But after Hollywood dropped the ball, the rights eventually reverted to the author's sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell, whose London-based production house Ink Factory is behind Bier's miniseries.

With le Carré's blessing, screenwriter David Farr has given the novel a contemporary makeover, updating the timeline to include the Arab Spring, replacing Colombian drug cartels with shady Middle Eastern militias and switching Burr's gender from male to female. Roper's center of operations has also been relocated from the Bahamas to a photogenic fortress villa on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a magnificent lair fit for a classic Bond villain.

Looking lean and buff, with a golden tan and impeccably tousled hair, Hiddleston is presented in maximum eye-candy mode here. He has several steamy sex scenes in the first two episodes, with strong indications of more to come, another element which owes more to James Bond's tumescent triumphalism than to le Carré's astringent depictions of Britain as a morally degraded post-imperial power. Hiddleston is well matched in screen presence by Laurie, playing his first British screen role in 13 years, who succeeds in making the witty and charming Roper more than just a stage villain, adding nuance to an often leaden script.

The supporting players are not so finely rendered. It is a convention in espionage thrillers for characters to not be who they initially seem, but Night Manager is unafraid to be thuddingly obvious, clearly signaling its heroes and villains from the start. Even those with divided loyalties, such as Roper's glamorous young American trophy girlfriend Jed (crisply played by rising Australian star Elizabeth Debecki), are mostly one-dimensional.  

Likewise the background chorus of sultry femme fatales, glacially arrogant old Etonians and mincing homosexuals whose every line is bawdy innuendo. Considering the show's high-end cast and lavish budget, these stock stereotypes are disappointing. That said, The Night Manager is still a superior genre piece, methodically engineered for mainstream audience appeal. If nothing else, it will be a profile-boosting star vehicle for Hiddleston, who looks likely to emerge from the experience shaken not stirred.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special: Series)
Production companies: Ink Factory, Demarest Films
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hollander, David Harewood
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: David Farr, based on the novel by John le Carré
Music: Victor Reyes
Cinematographer: Michael Snyman
Editor: Ben Lester
Art director: Tom Burton
Producer: Rob Bullock
Sales companies:  WME/IMG & The Night Manager Distribution Ltd.

Not rated, 120 minutes (2 episodes)