TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, AMC premieres the six-part miniseries "The Night Manager," based on the 1993 spy novel by John le Carre. It's directed by Susanne Bier and stars Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie as the villain. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, calls it one of those rare shows where everything comes together just right.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's been half a century since the incomparable spy novelist John le Carre first made his name as the anti-Ian Fleming. His heroes weren't babe-bedding killers like 007, but gray idealists in dingy offices who fought the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. When that war ended with the fall of the Soviet bloc, fans wondered whether le Carre himself would vanish like the Berlin wall. But he has always been staggeringly clever, and in 1993 he wrote his first post-Cold War novel, "The Night Manager." It became a huge bestseller, and it was easy to see why.
Heroic, fast-paced and unambiguous, it was the closest he'd ever come to James Bond. Reading it back then, I felt sure it would become a movie. It never did. Instead, "The Night Manager" has been turned into terrific television. As it jets from Egyptian streets to posh alpine lodges to sun-bedazzled mansions in Mallorca, this six-part AMC series is one of the most enjoyable thrillers I've ever seen on TV. Tom Hiddleston stars as Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier who works as the night manager at a luxury hotel in Cairo. While good at his job, he's actually in search of something more - an adventure or a grand destiny. It drops in his lap when a beautiful guest, Sophie Alekan, played by Aure Atika, comes to him for help. She's in mortal danger, and, knight errant that he yearns to be, Pine gets involved trying to save her.
This ultimately gets him recruited by a British intelligence agent Angela Burr, played with bracing decency by Olivia Colman. Burr has Pine infiltrate the inner circle of the so-called worst man in the world, Richard Onslow Roper, played by, of all people, Dr. House - Hugh Laurie. Roper's a billionaire arms dealer with unnervingly close ties to Her Majesty's government. And if such an undercover assignment isn't tricky enough, Pine starts developing feelings for Roper's girlfriend, Jed. That's Elizabeth Debicki who, like all le Carre heroines, needs to be rescued.
Meanwhile, his every move is being monitored by Roper's paranoid security man, Corkoran, played with toxic brio by Tom Hollander. What makes the mission possible is that Roper thinks Pine a kindred spirit. Here, at the beach, Roper's just grilled Pine about his beliefs, then offers his own philosophy of life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT MANAGER")
HUGH LAURIE: (As Richard Roper) So you don't drink and you're not pink. What are you? Me, I'm a free man - free to think, free to work, free to climb a mountain or lie in bed all day eating peppermint creams without any bugger telling me how. But I'm a free man. Well, that's the free part. The man part's a little different. See, children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It's crap. Becoming a man is realizing that it's all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness - that's freedom.
POWERS: Now, "The Night Manager" is a tall tale. But it's implausibilities are neatly disguised by screenwriter David Farr of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Danish director Susanne Bier, who won the 2011 best foreign film Oscar for "In A Better World." She earns vivid work from the whole cast and vastly improves the book's sexual politics. Le Carre always has trouble with female characters, but Bier helps Debicki find more emotion in the trapped Jed than in the novel, and makes women less passive by shifting Burr from a male spy to a female one.
Still, if Pine is drawn to Jed, the deeper and more complicated attraction is between him and Roper. While Roper sees a younger mirror of himself in the night manager, Pine feels the seductive allure of the arms dealer's immorality and wealth. Their interaction is superbly drawn. Even as Laurie's commanding Roper exudes an entitled malevolence whose surface charm only makes it more chilling, Hiddleston captures Pine's peculiar heroism. He's a good man who, to take down a monster, must tap into, accept and then overcome what's monstrous in himself.
Although a fantasy, "The Night Manager" touches on something real. Over the years, le Carre's anger at those in power has become less ambiguous and more sharply focused, whether he's going after drug company profiteering or America's approach to the War on Terror. Here, the figure of Roper, who's as socially-connected as he is ruthless, embodies everything le Carre finds dishonorable about the ruling elite in the Britain created by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Roper is a rich man who, given all the world's advantages, uses them not just to enjoy total personal freedom, but to make the world actively worse.
Of course, villains who make the world worse make thrillers better, and the best reason to watch this series is not for its vision of high-level corruption, but because it's so entertaining. Le Carre once said that his dilemma was to be de-glamorize the world of spying while also harnessing it as a good story. I can't honestly say "The Night Manager" achieves the former goal - Pine's spying looks mighty glamorous to me - but boy does it achieve the latter.
GROSS: John Powers writes about TV and film for Vogue and Vogue.com. He cowrote, with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, a new book called "WKW: The Cinema Of Wong Kar Wai."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR my guest will be writer and psychiatrist Arlene Heyman. Her debut short story collection, "Scary Old Sex," includes several stories dealing with characters in their 60s and 70s, and how aging has affected their intimate relationships and sex lives. One story is dedicated to Bernard Malamud, and is inspired by the affair Heyman had with him when she was a student. I hope you'll join us.
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