Thursday, 28 April 2016

TV Show Review: The Night Manager (2016)

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UK, USA; 6 episodes; crime, drama, mystery, spy thriller
Channel: BBC1, AMC
Screenplay: David Farr, based on a novel by John le Carré
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki, Alistair Petrie, Natasha Little, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood, Tobias Menzies, Antonio de la Torre, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Nardone

"Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom." - Richard Roper

When putting together the schedule for this month, I was looking for a new and exciting TV show to dig my teeth into. My eyes fell on The Night Manager, a BBC miniseries based on the 1993 John le Carré novel of the same name. Both are centered on Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a hotel night manager who signs up for an undercover operation of a joint British-American taskforce to bring down ruthless business man and arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). During its 6-episode lifespan, we see Pine assume multiple identities, become the lover of two beautiful women, befriend and defeat said arms dealer, and travel all over Europe and the Arab world. First broadcast in the UK on BBC1 in February to raving reviews, I figured The Night Manager must really keep what it promises. I mean an 8.4 score on and critics gushing over the reinvention of the spy thriller don’t lie, right? Well, in this case they might have… or at least exaggerated quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, The Night Manager isn’t terrible. It isn’t even a bad show per se. But in my opinion the miniseries just fails to live up to the hype. Yet, since it started in the U.S. last week, all I have seen are stellar reviews all over again. How can that be?
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As a fan of intros, this usually is my first clue as to whether a show is going to make a good first impression and set the right mood. Here we have a beautifully designed opening montage that in style, visuals, and music right on made me think: Downton Abbey – but with guns… It’s Downton Abbey meets James Bond! Awesome – love Downton, love James! So far so good.

What really is brilliant about this show is its international setting. Taking place in an affluent environment in Egypt, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, and London you get to enjoy secluded beaches, snow-clad mountains, as well as oriental 5 star hotels. The scenery is truly beautiful and (except for the Swiss mountainside and rainy London) might as well be a travel ad for the Mediterranean. To those of us, who don’t immediately associate Mallorca with drunk and raging Brits and Germans, Richard Roper’s island home might be somewhat out of a dream world. Kudos to the location scouts none-the-less. In fact, all the sets were absolutely breathtaking and detailed. Even if they weren’t postcard-worthy (i.e. supposed to be pretty) in a particular scene, the props and coloring were always to the point of what they needed to be. So well done set design and props departments. 

Also, what could be greater for an exciting spy thriller than an international setting? Well, nothing really, but still The Night Manager tries a bit too hard here. You don’t have to include all the super spy drama hotspots except Moscow here. It is a Europa or even worldwide operation, we get it, but every single place they went to gave me an immediate association with and feeling of another movie or show: Spectre in the Swiss Alps, NCIS in the Middle East, and Ocean’s Twelve at the Mallorquian villa just to name a few.

Another job well done by the creative minds behind The Night Manager is that they stray a bit from the novel the show is based on. Admittedly, I haven’t actually read it, but I read enough about it to know that they changed the setting to the Arab Spring (the novel was published in 1993, so this uprising hadn’t taken place yet). Changing the setting to events everyone can distinctly remember and which deeply influenced the current global refugee crisis, gives The Night Manager an acute relevance. In the context of recent world affairs, the show’s storyline more or less asks for critical thinking regarding the topic of illegal arms trade and governments’ involvement in furthering the current plight of millions. In addition to the change in time, the writers changed the sex of the lead
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investigator from male Leonard Burr to the female intelligence operative Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). While law enforcement is still mostly (portrayed as) a boy’s club, this gives nice credit to current discussions in film and society about equity at the work place. In quite a statement Angela Burr is not only a woman holding down the fort of truth and justice, but a pregnant yet still strong and career-driven woman with a stay-at-home husband. 

Where it feels like the show strayed too far from the original is in plot and pacing. Again, I haven’t read the novel, but a lot of times, especially in the first two episodes, where the scene is set for the whole series, scene changes are perceived as jumps in plot. You get the distinct feeling of many pages having been axed in editing. What suffers most from this predicament are interpersonal relationships. Though you’d think that a six-hour series gives you more room for character development and interaction than a 90-minute movie, a lot of the encounters between strangers seem to come out of nowhere and then you jump to a deep and devoted relationship between characters two scenes later. This is especially the case for the first episode in which Jonathan Pine is approached by Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), a woman-kept by shady business man Freddie Hamid (David Avery), to copy some incriminating papers. Suddenly there seems to be this immense attraction between the two of them and Pine gives up everything to get her to safety. When Sophie is murdered about 5 minutes later, it becomes the reason for Pine’s involvement in the Richard Roper case. The whole plot of The Night Manager and the main motivation of its protagonist stems from a brief encounter with a lady that, a few days before, Jonathan Pine didn’t even know. Now he’ll spend years trying to avenge her death – yeah, right. Storytelling elements like dreams, foreshadowing, and déjà vu are pretty conventional, too.

An admirable skill (yeah, right), when regarding the previous findings, is that even though a lot of plot elements and developments were rushed in the making of this series, the story is very slow to get going. It feels like nothing significant or plot-furthering happens in the first two episodes. For a spy thriller, there never really is much suspense to make you nervous and get your heart pumping. I am a bit of a fraidy-cat when it comes to crime and horror (even though I love it) and really there were only two occasions when I got slightly jumpy. One occurred in the middle of episode three when Jonathan Pine breaks into Richard Roper’s secret vault, the Citadel. That lasted about four minutes… The other occasion was in the middle of episode six, when Angela Burr sneaks into Roper’s hotel room to steal some papers from his safe. I really hoped the badass pregnant lady wouldn’t get snuffed by the enforcer Roper sent to secure his room. But really, not a lot of writers are that cruel and the whole endeavor was over in a flash. Kind of disappointing that the supposed re-inventor of the spy thriller genre turned out to not be such a thrill after all… That the grand finale basically played out as a neat 25-minute ride into the sunset for the good guys – Tom Hiddleston even got the pretty girl in the end, I mean come oooon – by then really surprised no one.

Performance wise The Night Manager has nothing to be ashamed of. Even though I still can’t really
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decide if Tom Hiddleston got his poker face on for the entire series to save his character or if his acting is just that impassive, I choose to believe he does pull off Jonathan Pine. Although there doesn’t seem to be real depth to his performance, it is nice to see Hiddleston’s face for once. Hugh Laurie plays Richard Roper (what a brilliant sounding character name, come on!), ruthless arms dealer, lover, and father. As per usual, I was amazed that Laurie’s seemingly stiff Britishness allows him to play all range of emotions from gentle and loving to ruthless and scary, even if there is always a certain reserved-ness in his portrayal. Plus, whoever can pull off lines like “War’s a spectator sport,” or “Nothing is quite as pretty as napalm at night,” deserves some recognition. 

The two female leads, however, are the ones who really know how to use the stage they are given. Olivia Colman portrays pregnant operative Angela Burr in a remarkably hands-on way. She isn’t overly dramatic. She doesn’t have to constantly stress her status as being pregnant, in fact she seems to ignore it most of the time or uses it as a “perfect disguise”. The only time Burr reverts from her “let’s just get the job done” attitude, is when she is almost caught in Roper’s room by his bodyguard. She breaks down in the elevator and we get to see, that Coleman really has a feeling for the character she is portraying. In this instance, her performance is positively rattled. Yet, her character is stone cold and determined, no matter the cost, when pressured by corrupt higher-ups. Elizabeth Debicki plays Jed Marshall, the young and beautiful lover of Richard Roper. She brings a woman to life that is very free in showing her body, while closing off her mind and heart. Debicki endows her character with an air of mystery that leaves the viewer wondering who Jed really is. When we find out she is keeping secrets and possibly even spying on her lover, Jed just gets all the more intriguing. Seemingly frail and emotional, there is still an inner strength and determination to her, that makes her risk her life for a good cause and withstand torture.

Overall BBC’s The Night Manager is a decent enough spy drama that, if you don’t have to watch it in one sitting, can be an almost pleasant pastime. Still, I believe a movie (or different writers) might have been the better option to ensure a fast-paced thriller. The basic idea of the story is intriguing and the show does a good job of relating back to our reality with its real problems, yet the spark of excitement never really catches on. The cast, on the other hand, is great and, if it wasn’t for the lack of developed personal relationships, I am sure they’d have been able to benefit from and play with each other nicely. The star of the show, however, is by far the scenery. The beautiful travelling shots over snow-capped mountains and blue Mediterranean lagoons are almost enough to justify sitting through six hours of spy blabbing – or at least enough inspiration to make you pick up your phone and look up travel destinations for your next vacation.


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