Updating John le Carré's 1993 novel to present-day turmoil in the Middle East, The Night Manager opens with the absurd image of Jonathan Pine, in a slightly rumpled blue dress shirt and white pants, walking to work through the chaos of Cairo's Tahir Square in 2011. The sequence recalls Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, confidently striding through bullets and bombs with an eye toward finding a good place to surf. Pine doesn't "love the smell of napalm in the morning" — and will, in fact, take great risks to keep napalm from falling into the wrong hands — but it's important to him that he stay at ground level and be a man of the people. He may not think himself invincible, like Duvall's Lt. Col. Kilgore, but he's willing to walk through fire to stay tethered to the real world.
As played by Tom Hiddleston, who cuts a figure of elegance and strength that shames any James Bond since Sean Connery, Pine makes a living servicing those who are cordoned off from reality. With the protests against Hosni Mubarak peaking just outside his five-star Hotel Nefertiti, Pine cheerfully accommodates the panicked guests who want the next taxi out of town, giving no indication that he resents their privilege. He gently recommends one woman take shelter in the bar, where "cocktails are complimentary." The Egyptian government is collapsing, and he's so sorry for any inconvenience that might cause. Circumstances will turn him into an active seeker of justice, but let it never be questioned that Pine is dedicated to his job.
The casting of Hiddleston in the title role says everything about the specific — and thus far enormous — appeal of The Night Manager, which seeks to position itself as both a sober treatment of the black-market weapons trade and an spy thriller drunk on romantic adventure. Series director Susanne Bier — who came out of the Dogme 95 movement with 2002's Open Hearts, but has since moved on to slicker fare like the Oscar-winning In a Better World and the English-language duds Things We Lost in the Fire and Serena — emphasizes Hiddleston's piercing eyes and lean physique, as well as the assurance with which Pine carries himself. That composure will surely be rattled as he goes deeper into the fray, but his heroic gait is undeniably sexy, and an early indicator that entertainment is as big a priority as politics.
And entertain the first episode does, efficiently setting the table for a cat-and-mouse game between Pine and Richard Onslow Roper, the nefarious arms dealer played by Hugh Laurie. For most of its first hour, The Night Manager treats Roper like the shark in Jaws, tucking him away in murky waters while Pine makes his first move toward bringing him down. Even while Roper isn't there in the flesh, his sphere of influence is chilling; he's powerful enough to freak out Freddie Hamid (David Avery), the billionaire playboy who wants to buy his weapons, and pollute the pipeline leading from Pine to the British intelligence. Were Pine not uniquely stationed at the sort of hotel that discreetly accommodates the rich and venal, Roper would remain a specter.
Pine's desire to stay detached from his clients' business is trumped by a tug at his conscience. Hamid's beautiful mistress, Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), seems to recognize that inner conflict from the start, which explains why she risks handing him documents that itemize the weapons Roper intends to sell to Hamid — presumably for post-revolution oppression. Hamid's family has likely benefited from Mubarak's authoritarian rule, and the chaos of a new, potentially unfavorable government is a threat to their fortune. Alekan wants Pine to keep a copy of the incriminating documents in the hotel safe, to be released in anything happens to her, but there's a tacit understanding that he'll act on the information himself. Because that's the type of person he is.
After news of the documents gets back around to Hamid and Roper, Alekan's bravery leads to her inevitable death. It also scotches the arms deal, which stops the pursuit of justice in its tracks. But memories of Alekan still haunt Pine four years later, when he's moved on to managing the Meisters Hotel in the mountains of Zermatt, Switzerland, and suddenly has access to Roper once again. In that regard, the story resembles le Carré's The Constant Gardener, which also features a hero motivated by the death of a woman close to him. (Though Bier's tacky images of Alekan in Pine's dreams, clad ghost-like in billowy gowns, are an unnecessary touch.) Without her, it's possible that Pine would look the other way out of an instinct for self-preservation. He knows now that capturing "the worst person in the world" won't be as easy as slipping the right information to the right people.
Which brings us to Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), the one British intelligence operative who can be trusted. "Do whatever you want with those," Pine tells her, passing along an envelope full of discarded cell phone chips. "I don't want to be involved." But Burr, like Alekan, correctly reads Pine as the type of man who cannot suppress his basic sense of decency and civic duty. He served two tours in Iraq for the British army and he knows, in Burr's words, "what those weapons can do to a body." Our reluctant hero is ready to join the fight.
- I have not read the le Carré novel, but intend to remedy that next week. In the meantime, Wikipedia tells us that, in addition to the Arab Spring update, Burr's character has been changed from a man to a woman. I'll note other alterations in future recaps.
- The opening credits are not the subtlest in suggesting a relationship between wealth and destruction, but the sequence is graphically fluid and reflects a Bond-esque quality that's seen throughout the show.
- The paucity of le Carré's signature dry wit in the first episode is worrisome, though Hiddleston can deliver it when given the chance. Asked by Alekan if he can trust his contact in the British embassy, who set him at the Cairo Yacht Club, Pine replies, "I trust him not to capsize a boat."
- Roper's philanthropic "safe haven" for war refugees calls to mind the New-Path drug treatment clinic in A Scanner Darkly. In both cases, the operation that destroys people's lives is involved in rehabilitating them.
- For American viewers who know Laurie mostly from House, Roper plays like a Dr. House who's snuffed out the faintly glowing embers of his conscience. He's a creature of pure, delicious malevolence.