With a great nimbleness, The Night Manager makes change look very good.
“The center of the novel is arms dealing. It was happening in the early 90s, and of course it’s happening now,” reflects Tom Hiddleston on the updating of John le Carré’s 1993 novel for event television. Personified by leads Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, the Susanne Bier-directed miniseries stands on the giant shoulders of le Carré’s prose, deftly transposing the action from the dank end of the Cold War and South American drug lords to the bloody fallout of the Arab Spring.
In the first le Carré TV adaptation in over 20 years, Hiddleston is recruited to play former military man Jonathan Pine, the hotel night manager of the title. Having been seasoned by atrocities during his tours in Iraq in the preceding decade, Hiddleston’s Pine is a haunted man suddenly “stirred,” to quote the show, to coming out from behind the 5-star lobby desk and pressing himself into action.
“He’s a deeply romantic character but a closed human being,” notes Bier, “and in the course of becoming a real spy he then becomes an actual human being as well.”
Jonathan Pine’s transformation in The Night Manager begins with a chance encounter in the unrest-drenched Cairo of early 2011. Managing a top hotel in the middle of the uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak, Pine learns some very deadly information. The arsenal he discovers being ordered in the middle of the protests in Tahrir Square is the catalyst for him to leave his crafted life behind and to infiltrate the circle of international arms dealing presided over by the worst man in the world, Laurie’s Richard Roper.
“In order for the show to have the same impact as the book, it had to speak to our political climate now; updated and wedded to the world we live in,” Hiddleston adds on a LA spring day, as he sits down with Laurie and Bier to reflect on the series. “Hugh can talk about that more because he was such an admirer of the novel when it came out.”
“I remember 1993 like it was yesterday,” cracks Laurie laconically, causing both Hiddleston and Bier to laugh deeply. A confessed devotee of le Carré’s work, Laurie actually tried to option The Night Manager when the book was released, but found the rights already in Sydney Pollack’s hands. Pollack’s death in 2008, and the two stunted attempts at making a movie that followed, saw the rights shift back to le Carré’s estate. When the author’s sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell resurrected the project for television via their Ink Factory shingle, Laurie was quickly onboard as a lead and executive producer.
Despite a varied career, Laurie’s seamless performance as the evil and enticing billionaire has surprised many – a reaction that doesn’t particularly surprise the amused multiple Emmy nominee and two-time Golden Globe winner. “I simply observe that nothing I’ve ever done in my entire career has not been prefaced by the words ‘unlikely’ or ‘improbable,’ and that’s how I think of myself,” he laughs. “I take it as a compliment and actually I rather relish it. I made a rod for my own back. For 20-odd years, I played goofy, inconsequential characters as a way of hiding.”
Taking a pause, Laurie shifts gears and goes for a lighter ending. “Having said that, I frequently confess to Tom the lengthening list of actors that I would have cast instead of me to play Richard Roper,” he says, to more laughter from Hiddleston and Bier, who both insist Laurie was by far the obvious choice for the character.
One reason for that, to paraphrase Roper himself in the David Farr script, is that he and Hiddleston both bring a “little swashbuckling” here and there in The Night Manager. Plus, as any good thriller requires, there’s sexual and political intrigue with co-stars Elizabeth Debicki—as Jed Marshall Roper and Pine’s love interest with deep fraught secrets of her own—and Tom Hollander—as the arms dealer’s foul-mouthed right hand man. In a pivotal role, Broadchurch alum Olivia Colman plays Angela Burr, the heavily-pregnant head of the International Enforcement Agency. It is the relentless Burr and her small-staffed and ill-treated division of British Intelligence that receives Pine’s information and recruits him to take down Roper.
Co-star Debicki chimes in: “It’s so funny; I have read the book, but I can’t even imagine Burr being a man now.”
Gender played another role in the series too. Shifting away from the Bond girls and eye candy that populate most spy shows and movies, The Night Manager creatives and cast sought to redefine what it is to be a female character in the genre. “There are so many actresses who play these roles, but they know in their hearts that they’re complex, wonderful, layered human beings and yet they’re playing people who are only one strain or another,” says Debicki. “But, in a genre where women are very often the object of beauty and nothing else, things are changing. Angela Burr is a perfect example of that and so is Jed, who is complex herself.”
“I wanted to make sure that the female characters had some substantial elements to play with,” agrees Bier. “Jed’s a troubled human being and not just a gloriously beautiful girlfriend.”
“We made an active choice that we wanted her to be a real person,” continues Debicki. “To have an internal struggle and layers, and for them to be revealed in the same as everybody else’s characters.” Certainly, as The Night Manager progresses, both Burr and Jed’s nuance become more profound and, at the same time, more normalized.
“Imagine if Jonathan Pine in this, or the male roles in a lot of things, were completely one-dimensional. We’re not going to watch that show and it’s not going to be a great hit,” she suggests. “More interesting roles are being written for women and appearing on the page, it’s just not as common as it has been for men for so long.”
With the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Bier at the helm, the $30 million series was shot over 75 days from March to June 2015. The locations ranged from Zermatt, Switzerland to London and Devon, UK; as well as Marrakesh, Morocco and British banker Lord James Lupton’s 17th-century home in Majorca. The former stood in for Cairo, Egypt while the latter nicely portrayed Roper’s well-appointed lair. Debuting in the UK in February, The Night Manager became a ratings and cultural phenomenon over its run on that side of the Atlantic.
“I think it was and is successful because it works on so many different levels,” asserts EP Stephen Garrett of the BBC and AMC co-production. “If you are looking for a smart Bond-like thriller, it works for you. If you are looking for a psychologically complex Hitchcock game of cat-and-mouse, it works on that level. It is three different love stories in a way; Pine and Roper, Jed and Pine and Burr and Pine, in their desire to bring Roper down. Lastly, I think it is successful because it’s about something going on in the world.”
Even more so than back in the 90s, the reality of today’s Britain having long run out of imperial steam, if not influence, permits the well-connected Roper to ferret in and out of the spaces between diplomacy and official armed response with guile and deceit and leave chaos and death in his wake. To that end, against the bloody backdrop of over a decade of terror and war in the Middle East, and the ever-sprawling resulting refugee crisis Europe faces today, The Night Manager provides a degree of clarity amidst the fervored ambiguities of ambition and national interest that loom over our 21st Century lives.
A tone that Bier fostered on the set of the production, says Debicki. “I think the world Susanne creates is sort of hyper-naturalistic and that’s what she demands of her actors,” the actor declares. “She never strays anywhere near melodrama in any way. Early on, Susanne said to me, ‘I’m allergic to fake,’ which I found interesting and discovered to be very true.”
“It’s something that Burr encourages in the scene in the hotel room in London in episode 2,” Hiddleston postulates, drawing parallels between Bier’s resonance and the world of The Night Manager itself. “She says, ‘You have to be believable and credible as the second worst man in the world; first place is already taken.’ Pine takes that to heart. His commitment to the dark side is what actually gives him the space to be heroic because the only way to bring Roper down is to get close to him. He’s the most method actor of all method actors and his performance is immaculate in the process.”
Which is exactly what you could say of The Night Manager itself.