John le Carre #4: The Russia House
The John le Carre series – of films based on his novels – at BAM ended October 3. As I said at the start of this series, I am surprised the movie version of The Russia House wasn’t part of the series – particularly since the much less deserving The Looking Glass War was – and so here is my take on it.
It’s somewhat ironic James Bond, for a long time, was considered the symbol of spies and espionage during the Cold War when Bond himself, for all intents and purposes, was never strictly a Cold War warrior. True, he dealt with the Soviets, or Soviet-type agencies, in a few novels and movies (From Russia with Love), and even teamed up with a Russian agent (in the film of The Spy who Loved Me, which has nothing to do with the Ian Fleming novel of the same name). But most often, Bond found himself battling your standard villains with delusions of grandeur, whether acting by themselves (Diamonds are Forever) or within an organization (Thunderball), and while Bond was acting for Queen and Country – and for the women he could get as a side benefit – he wasn’t explicitly acting against the Soviets. Still, it’s also kind of ironic when the Cold War began to unravel in 1989-90 (before finally coming to an end in 1991), and Russia was no longer considered the Great Enemy, the two major 1990 films that both considered the Cold War, and were therefore caught in a crossfire of their own, starred Sean Connery, who became famous thanks to playing James Bond in seven films. In the first of the two films, The Hunt for Red October – adapted from the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy – Connery played a Russian submarine commander who planned to defect to the U.S. The movie was sold as a period piece (taking place in 1984), garnered decent reviews and became a box office hit. The second of the films, The Russia House, despite also being based on a best-selling novel – by, of course, John le Carre – and having the star power of Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, received mixed reviews and was a failure at the box office. However, I think it’s one of the best of the le Carre adaptations, and time seems to have been kind to it for others as well.
Instead of the tough, sophisticated, glamorous Bond, Connery’s character here is the boozy, disheveled and poetic Bartholomew Scott Blair, nicknamed Barley, and it’s fun to imagine Connery took the role because it’s so far apart from the sensibilities of Bond. The owner and head of a small publishing house called Abercrombie & Blair, Barley loves nothing more than to talk, drink, and play his saxophone (a soprano sax). Now that it’s the age of glasnost, Barley is able to make trips to Russia, a country he loves despite its problems, and talk with like-minded people at book fairs and parties. At one particular party, he’s on a roll with his rhetoric, praising the new openness of the world in general and Russia in particular, and declares that everyone needs to betray their own country to better the world. He also adds, “You have to think like a hero merely to behave like a decent human being.” This catches the ear of a man who calls himself Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) – Goethe in the novel – who catches up with Barley outside the party at a graveyard, and makes Barley promise that if he, Dante, ever acts like a hero, then Barley will act like a decent human being. Barley promises, but then forgets all about it.
Dante, however, does not, and his reminder shows up at a book fair in Russia in the form of Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), a protege of Dante’s. She comes looking for Barley, but finds Niki Landau (Nicholas Woodeson), who works for another publishing house, instead. She pleads with him to give Barley a package with a book from Dante (she doesn’t say it’s from him) that will advance the cause of peace. Intrigued in spite of himself, Landau takes the package. When he sees it’s actually three books and a letter (addressed to Barley), and the books contain engineering terms about missiles, rockets and the like, he turns them over to the British Embassy. Eventually, they get to British Intelligence and the Circus, specifically Ned (James Fox), Clive (Michael Kitchen) and Walter (Ken Russell), and they are all stunned, because what Dante is saying is the Soviet nuclear, missile and defense systems are all in terrible shape, and nowhere near the capacity they tell the public. Is this for real, or is this merely a ruse by the Soviets? First order of business, however, is to find Barley.
Turns out Barley’s at a house of his in Lisbon, though when an embassy official (Ian McNeice) finds him, he’s in a bar/cafe. Even he’s whisked away to meet Ned and company and they present him with the letter (which begins, “My beloved Barley” and ends, “Your loving Katya”), he has no idea what’s going on. Barley truthfully says he doesn’t know Katya (“Never screwed one, never flirted with one, never proposed to one, never even married one”), but after some prodding, he does eventually remember Dante and the conversation they had. Given that, and given both the Circus and their American Cousins – in the form of Russell (Roy Scheider), a CIA director, Quinn (J.T. Walsh), a general, and Brady (John Mahoney), a government official – want to know if Dante’s for real or not, Barley reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow to meet up with Katya and try to arrange another meeting with Dante. Once there, he starts to fall in love with Katya, which of course brings on complications.
Given the plot, even though it’s taking place during glasnost and perestroika, when things are supposedly more open (Katya tells Barley dryly that the one freedom she’s noticed is she now has the right to complain about long lines without fear of retribution), you might expect this to be as dark and unsparing as le Carre’s other work. Instead, le Carre’s novel is surprisingly lighter in tone, even humorous, though it never downplays the seriousness of its subject. And while director Fred Schepisi and writer Tom Stoppard do compress the novel somewhat – they get rid of the character of Harry Palfrey, a background character who narrates the novel and who turns up in le Carre’s later novel The Night Manager, and consolidate some events while shifting perspective to other characters – they not only remain faithful to the plot for the most part (except for having a more hopeful ending than the more ambiguous novel), they also remain faithful to that tone.
Part of that involves how they play with the narrative structure. Schepisi, of course, would play around with narrative in subsequent films such as Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders and his made-for-HBO miniseries Empire Falls, and he does so here, though not as much. As we see Katya make her approach to Niki in the beginning, we hear Ned, Clive and Walter grilling Barley about her. Then, near the end, as Ned reads a letter, we see some of the same scenes we had been shown earlier, except this time, we learn what was really going on. The jazz-tinged score by Jerry Goldsmith, with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery on saxophone, also lends the movie its lightness of spirit, though it also keeps a melancholy tone underneath. There’s also the fact this was only the second American-financed film to be filmed in Russia – the first was the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Red Heat, but the bulk of that film took place in the U.S. – and Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker (who has shot all of Schepisi’s films except for Last Orders) certainly show off quite a bit of Russia. As a matter of fact, when I first saw the film, I thought Schepisi was so besotted by the scenery and the chance to shoot so extensively in Russia that he would occasionally lapse by letting the scenery overwhelm the story. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I realized Schepisi, like le Carre, wanted to show you what looked like the true openness of the Soviet Union, and how that still was a disguise in some ways.
One of the criticisms this received, from Roger Ebert among others, is how the story of Barley and Katya was too often interrupted by men in rooms waiting for something to happen. But those scenes have more of a purpose than you might think. They emphasize the disconnect between the professionals like Russell and Ned (who asks Brady at one point, referring to Dante, “Do you remember straight?”) and Barley and Katya, who, as with many le Carre lead characters, are merely pawns in the Great Game of spying. Stoppard also includes these scenes to flesh out the American characters (who only appear in one part of the novel), so they’re not just a device for le Carre to criticize America for wanting the Soviet Union to remain a boogeyman to justify their arms race (though Stoppard doesn’t soft-pedal that view either). And the fluid camerawork by Baker and the fluid editing by Peter Honess (this was the second of four films he did for Schepisi; Beth Jochem Besterveld also did uncredited editing work) keep the scenes from bogging down the movie. More importantly, though, these scenes with men in rooms waiting bring up one of the main themes le Carre has used not only in this novel, but in past novels; spying is waiting. It isn’t filled with action and derring-do, but waiting for results to come in, or information that can later be used towards producing results.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s kind of fun to imagine Connery playing the part as a way of poking slight fun of his Bond image (when Ned and the others are showing him tradecraft, Barley says, “This is fun. Is that why you keep it secret?”), as the boozy, opinionated, somewhat disheveled Barley looks more like a professor (or a writer) than a sophisticated spy. But Connery doesn’t play the part as a parody, but keeps it real. He’s able to subtly play the decisions his character makes near the end of the film, as well as the openly emotional scenes when he declares himself to Katya. One might balk at the thought of Pfeiffer playing a Russian, but not only does she do the accent flawlessly (as well as the dialect; there’s an emphasis in the novel and movie on how Katya uses the word “convenient” in a way that actually means “proper”), she also looks as Niki describes her in the novel (“she had that rare quality…The Class That Only Nature Can Bestow”), as well as the spirit inside that Barley also falls in love with. And she and Connery have the chemistry that’s crucial to the movie working as a love story in addition to it being a spy story.
Fox, of course, has spent most of his career playing upper-crust characters of all kinds, from diplomats (The Mighty Quinn) to royalty (Patriot Games) to snooty businessmen (Absolute Beginners) and even other spies (the made-for-HBO Doomsday Gun). Ned is the type of role he could have done in his sleep, but Fox invests him with both intelligence and humanity, so we believe Ned is the only one who knows things aren’t as they seem near the end. Russell is caught between his blunt manner (after he chews out Ned in colorful terms, Ned notes dryly, “Russell’s metaphors are becoming rather scatological”) and his genuine wish for glasnost, and Scheider is able to play both sides of him convincingly. I was slightly disappointed at the time, and still am to some degree, that Mahoney didn’t have more to do; in the novel, Brady has quite the conversational duel with Barley, and all you get in the movie is him asking Barley about playing jazz, and chess, with Ray Noble. Still, Mahoney does give Brady the requisite gravitas. And Walsh and Kitchen are convincing enough in their roles, while Brandauer has the intelligence and fatalism of Dante down cold. It’s Ken Russell who’s the big surprise. Though he’d acted in small parts in his own films, this was the first time he’d acted in someone else’s film, and given the over-the-top nature of the films he’s directed (with sharply divided opinions on the quality of those films), you might think he’d try to hijack the movie. But his campy yet caustic take on Walter is perfect for the film, and he gives the film a lift of energy whenever he’s on screen. It’s to Schepisi’s credit that the movie doesn’t flag when Walter disappears from the movie.
One theme that has run through most of le Carre’s work, and which I’ve tried to call attention to in each of these reviews, is how the spy world, and the politics of the real world, are much different than the more escapist films and novels would have you believe. The fact The Russia House is able to hold onto that theme while also being lighter in tone (and more romantic at the end, unlike the more open-ended conclusion of the novel) is a credit to le Carre, as well as Schepisi, Stoppard, and the others who worked on the film. And that’s why this ranks as one of my favorite le Carre adaptations.