The AMC miniseries The Night Manager is based on a John le Carré novel, but it feels like a smaller-scale, more overtly character-driven action film. This is both a bad thing and a good thing, but there’s no denying the excitement of the end product, which pulls viewers along on a strong current of suspense, glamour, and macho regret, and gives us two lead performances worth savoring. The production mostly lacks the ambiguity and quietness we think of when we think of le Carré, beginning at a fever pitch and building to an emotional conflagration. You rarely doubt the essential goodness of its hero, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), an ex-soldier turned night manager who becomes embroiled in a dangerous undercover mission, or the basic indecency of its villain, English billionaire (Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper), who preaches the international restorative power of free-flowing capital while selling weapons to very dangerous people.
The miniseries is directed by Susanne Bier (Brothers, After the Wedding) and written by David Farr, who has updated the novel from the post-Gulf War era to the more recent past, swapped out nationalities and locations, and changed the gender of one major character. It feels like what you might get if Jason Bourne or James Bond or 24 hero Jack Bauer were assigned a more narrowly focused mission (like the one Bond undertook in 1989’s License to Kill, perhaps). Hiddleston is so perfect as the hero — somehow blending Burt Lancaster’s steely-eyed menace and the palpable fear that James Stewart brought to Alfred Hitchcock thrillers — that you’d follow him anywhere. The filmmakers seem to realize how lucky they are to have him. They place his reactions at the center of every scene so you’re always feeling what Pine is feeling and trying to guess his next move; whether he’s trying to protect an imperiled, terrified woman who’s decided to leak incriminating details about Roper’s weapons trafficking or passing himself off as a different man to gain the confidence of criminals on the lowest rungs of the international arms-dealing community, you believe in his attack-dog viciousness and physical skills even as you fear for his safety.
Pine’s undercover mission is really an attempt to assuage feelings of guilt and failure and perhaps channel PTSD from his Iraq War experience as well — I’d rather not say exactly what I mean by all that, because it would spoil an ugly twist in the first episode — and Hiddleston gives you so much information with his eyes and body language that you don’t need a lot of dialogue to fill in his backstory (which, of course, doesn’t stop other characters from doing it for him). This is the sort of performance that’s very easy to take for granted because it’s mainly physical and often reactive, but it should not be underrated. When Pine bluffs his way out of a tight spot or beats a local hoodlum to a pulp in a garage while Victor Reyes’s John Barry–like orchestral score swells and peaks, you can see why journalists who’d seen The Night Manager would ask Hiddleston if he’s angling to be the next Bond. (He keeps saying no — but never say never.)
Laurie makes a worthy adversary. As Roper, he captures the calm arrogance of a super-rich man with such intelligence (and pleasure — close your eyes and he sounds like Jeremy Irons) that the character never succumbs to rich-bastard-with-tented-thumbs cliché. There’s a moment in episode two where Roper responds to a sudden, terrifying eruption of violence with the calmness of a man who knows that his money and muscle ultimately give him a tactical advantage even when screaming men are pointing guns in his face. The sequence flows through Laurie’s icy serenity, to the point where you’re lulled into thinking it’s ultimately about his character’s mastery of his world even though the production has a nifty surprise in store at the end.
There isn’t much in The Night Manager you haven’t seen before, but Bier and her collaborators invest each scene with such conviction and pay such careful attention to the characters’ motivations (including those of Roper’s girlfriend Jed, played by Elizabeth Debicki, and Pine’s handler Angela Burr, played by Olivia Colman from Broadchurch) that it succeeds as eye and brain candy. The direction is superficially gorgeous but more functional than artful, concerned mainly with information delivery: There are lots of close-ups of faces and important objects, such as a folded note buried in a book or a column of names on a spreadsheet. Everyone in the main cast is impeccably attired and coiffed, and filmed as if they were luxury cars being worshipped in a Super Bowl ad. Hiddleston has the tightest abs of any hotel night manager in history and gets plenty of shirtless shots, while episode two opens with a wordless sequence of a beautiful young woman trying on underwear and putting on makeup as sunlight halos her body. The settings tend to be menacingly “exotic” or one-percenter-opulent; a brief interlude in a theoretically hardscrabble English farming town is lit and framed with such casual gloss that you could put freeze-frames on covers of the area’s bed-and-breakfast brochures. These shouldn’t be considered demerits, but rather evidence that The Night Manager knows exactly what kind of entertainment it wants to be: escapism with just enough of a dark edge to pass for art. And it stays as focused on its mission as Pine does on his.