The Night Manager

4 stars

Ed Williamson

8th April 2016

Dayman! Uhh-AHH-ahh! Fighter of the Night Manager! Is all I could think of when I heard the title. Then I found out it had House and Loki in it, and I was on board, although still mainly for the Dayman thing.

There's more to it though, it turns out. After Hugh Laurie left a House-shaped hole in my life four years ago, I'm as pleased to see him back as I was when his interminable blues band finally left the Hammersmith Apollo stage in 2013. The Night Manager is a project he's been wanting to get off the ground for the two decades since he read John le Carré's novel, and now he has a little stardust around him, it's a bit easier to rake in the financial backers.

This backing comes in the form of co-producers AMC, who presumably stumped up most of the cash alongside the thirty quid or so the BBC could afford without John Whittingdale finding out. US-UK co-productions are the way to go on this evidence: there's money on show in the locations, the scale and the talent they've attracted to it.

Tom Hiddleston is the main casting coup here, playing the eponymous Jonathan Pine in a way far less redolent of Bond than the easy press narrative has suggested. Yes yes, he looks good in a suit on a sunlit Mediterranean terrace, but he's working undercover in a way Bond never bothers to: actually pretending to be something he's not, sometimes meek and diffident to conceal his intentions. It's a more interesting prospect for an actor.

Hiddleston, Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki in a tense three-hander scene.

As Pine worms his way into Richard Roper's affairs he meets the obligatory damaged society girl who needs rescuing, and the suspicious second-in-command Tom Hollander, overdoing the perviness but not giving a shit as Corky, who spends half his time hinting he's going to torture Pine for disloyalty and the rest that he's going to bum him to death. Hollander's short stature against Hiddleston's house-captain bearing makes for a physical mismatch (the fact that Corky briefly gets the upper hand when they eventually fight just comes off daft), but it suggests some character specifics: maybe the little guy's spent his life getting a kicking off big handsome guys he just wanted to be close to, and now he hates them on sight.

Laurie, playing "the worst man in the world" poshes up the voice a bit to drive home the sense of a rogue plutocrat to whom the rules don't apply (he, Hiddles and Hollers are all alumni of the Dragon School in Oxford, which helps add to the sense of public-school entitlement tipped over into imperialist villainy). The Night Manager has made me resume the House rewatch I'd embarked upon and let lapse a few months ago, and both remind me what's so great about Laurie: you never think of his other roles when you're watching him. There's no trace of House in Roper, when a lesser actor would've taken the doctor's more unpleasant traits and just thrown them into this, hoping to produce generic "bad guy". Instead he spends a long time not doing anything, his veneer of menace a mixture of charm and staged alma mater bonhomie. You're waiting for the eruption, which only happens in starts ultimately (his unexpected bang on a drinks table scares the shit out of you), carefully controlled throughout.

It seems a shame to note a weak link, but Olivia Colman's role as Burr (a male character in the book: FIRST GHOSTBUSTERS AND NOW THIS) feels out of step with the rest of the piece. This makes sense on one level: there's a deliberate contrast drawn between her shitty River House offices and Roper's jet-set world, so as to play up the David and Goliath narrative. But her accent – never her strong suit, and she doesn't maintain it consistently – seems chosen too deliberately to embellish this, and lends her scenes a cartoonish air. She is convincing as ever when stonewalling her disciplinary committee and ordering subordinates around with puckish bluntness, and pleasingly she gets more to do than office work, snaffling some documents from a hotel safe in a tense scene. But her scenes felt at times like ITV ones, smuggled into a high-end BBC drama.

It ends a bit too easily, and could've used another obstacle for Pine to overcome, but overall you're just grinning your stupid face off at a BBC drama with money on show and proper people in it putting in a good shift. The dragons who taught drama at that school must have been good at it.

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