Further blurring the lines between features and event drama, The Night Manager had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last evening. The thriller, adapted from John Le Carré’s 1993 best-seller, was enthusiastically received at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with a packed audience catching the six-parter’s first two episodes. Produced by The Ink Factory, BBC One and AMC, the spy series’ ensemble includes Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander and Elizabeth Debecki who were all in town along with Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier in her series helming debut, and Le Carré. Ahead of the screening, talent spoke to the press about the project which pits Hiddleston and Laurie’s characters in a dangerous dance across lush locations including Mallorca, Zermatt, London and Marrakech. Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine is being compared to James Bond here and Laurie is eerily charming as “the worst man in the world.”
Bowing in Berlin, as part of the festival’s growing Drama Series Days, was a “statement,” exec producer Simon Cornwell told me ahead of the screening. The cinematic scope certainly made for a compelling theatrical presentation. The TV debut is Sunday night in the UK on BBC One, followed by international rollout in some AMC markets beginning Monday. IMG and The Ink Factory previously closed a raft of offshore deals, while the U.S. launch is on AMC on April 19.
The mini is exec produced by Stephen and Simon Cornwell and Stephen Garrett and adapted by David Farr, who is on double duty in Berlin with the Panorama feature The Ones Below. It’s the first television adaptation of a Le Carré novel in more than 20 years and follows former British soldier Pine (Hiddleston), who is recruited by an intelligence operative to navigate an unholy alliance between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade. To infiltrate the inner circle of lethal arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper (Laurie), Pine must himself become a criminal.
Laurie and Hiddleston came aboard early and are credited on screen as executive producers. Laurie had first become intrigued by the novel in the 90s when he fancied himself in the younger lead role of Pine. Given the passage of time (and loss of hair, Laurie noted yesterday), he’s instead in as Roper, aka “the worst man in the world” per Colman’s intelligence operative Burr. That character was a man in the book, but shifted for Colman who was also pregnant during filming. Of the switch, the actress said, “Burr and Roper and Pine are the antithesis of each other, so it made sense to go the whole hog and be the opposite gender as well. And I think it worked really well” — cue hoots and hollers from the Berlin audience.
Laurie said he didn’t specifically seek out playing a villain. But, when he first read the book was “charmed” by the Roper character. “I loathed him. He plainly is a very wicked creature, but undeniably he has charm and there is something seductive about him. There is something intoxicating about someone who has put themselves beyond the bounds of laws, who has the confidence, the daring, the kind of madness.”
Laurie, who is most recognized on a global scale for having played Dr Gregory House, and is soon starting Hulu series Chance, compared making a network show and a limited piece. “There’s a very big difference to be telling stories in groups of six, eight, 10 as opposed to 24 which, that’s sort of crazy. Maybe naturally this could be a question of what writers and actors think they’re capable of producing in a single burst of energy… The 10 months straight of 16 hours a day in a black box is quite hard going, I can’t deny it. And for the writers that was hard. I think it’s probably true that many actors and writers and directors would — you could argue it’s just laziness — but maybe they would rather concentrate their efforts on an intense three or four month stint rather than 10 months.” Still, he said of House, “I think of him a lot… I feel as though he’ll be with me until I die.”
Hiddleston is receiving praise for his turn as Pine who has a James Bond quality. He said the similarities are that both “have a license above and beyond the law, granted by MI6 to do bad things for the greater good.” However, the difference lies in that Le Carré’s “understanding of spies and MI6 and agent running is very sophisticated, very real. That’s not to suggest that Bond isn’t, but Bond has become a cultural phenomenon as a piece of entertainment so he has to deliver on lots of different levels that The Night Manager doesn’t.”
The actor, who works in both indie and studio fare and is currently shooting Skull Island in Australia, said he has always challenged himself to “play different kinds of parts in different genres to find a common thread of humanity in different people. Excavating foreign territory is part of what I find exciting as an actor.”
Is there more event drama in the future for him? “I hope so,” he said, and also noted that the collaborative experience of The Night Manager as an executive producer “felt like a more fulfilling commitment.” He and Laurie both felt “like we had more ownership of the work. And the length of it is great. As an actor and a storyteller, you have more time to deal in subtlety and nuance and sophistication that six hours gives you and two hours doesn’t. But I have no prejudice in any direction.”
Le Carré for his part told the post-screening audience that he had a “very small” role in the early discussions about how the project would go forward. “After that I took a real backseat. I’m here really because I want to celebrate a beautiful artistic performance masterminded by Susanne, and superb performances by all the people on the stage.”