The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston in "The Night Manager."

Associated Press

"The Night Manager's" greatest weakness is that it doesn't seem to have all that much interest in who Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), now going by "Andrew Birch," actually is. He's less a character than an all-purpose plot device, a way to learn more about Richard Roper's (Hugh Laurie) evil deeds, flirt shamelessly with Roper's young American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) and alternate between feeding information to Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) and comprising her operation. Throughout, Hiddleston has a few moments, but since most of his actions are functional rather than indicative of a character, the actor and the character are left lost.

That's not to say that episode 4 is without its pleasures: Pine and Jed get more than a few flirtation scenes that act as respite for them while putting them in greater danger. We're getting a slightly better sense of who Jed is: a woman with few options (she left her young son with her sister and hinted at a drug-related past) who's slowly becoming more aware of just what a monster her boyfriend is, and who sees the clearly virtuous Pine as an escape. Their first scene together in the episode in Pine's quarters is hushed, her looking for reasons to trust him before they kiss and rejecting him when he advises her to pretend she was out for a nighttime stroll if anyone sees her. "Why the hell would I listen to you?" But it's not long before they're alone again while Roper's doing business and they have a (very brief) lovemaking session. Jed asks who Pine really is — Jonathan Pine, Thomas Quince, Andrew Birch — but he's mostly just a way out for her. The two actors play off of each other well, with Hiddleston slightly resistant while Debicki's lustful, but there's a hollowness where the emotional center of the show should be.

Roper doesn't seem to notice their connection. Corky (Tom Hollander), who's been suspicious of Pine from the get-go (not to mention openly lascivious), does notice, making comments about "nighttime naughties" between the two while Roper was away and leaning in, turning Pine's relationship with Jed against him. "Do you have any idea what he'd do to her if he knew?...Or don't you care?" Hiddleston is taller and more imposing than Hollander, but Hollander's venomous delivery and furious expression dominates the scene, with the actor simultaneously threatening the two lovers while suggesting he does, at least to some degree, care that Jed isn't hurt.

He also shows a bit of jealousy that someone's getting closer to Pine than he is, and that grows clearer in a drunken lunch in which Corky embarrasses the whole table by heckling the waiter (in a hilarious over-the-top French accent, pronouncing "lobster" as "lobstair"), hissing at another and punching him while trying to take another table's lunch, and, when Pine intervenes, groping the younger man before falling to the floor and clapping sarcastically. "Isn't he a charmer? So smoooooth," he purrs, before calling Roper blind and Pine a "human bloody hand-grenade" and pushing his chair in petulantly. Hollander's drunken movements, his fury, and his genuine hurt blend together beautifully in the scene. He's the best part of the show not just because he's the funniest and most deliciously evil, but because he's provided a real emotional weight to his character's actions that Hiddleston can't.

Much of the rest of the episode goes through the motions: there's some intrigue in British Intelligence as one of the few not in on Roper's game gives away key information to one of Roper's many allies, and "Andrew Birch" gets to smooth out the deal for arms in Istanbul. The scenes have a "let's get this out of the way" feeling to them, with director Susanne Bier shooting them like necessary nuisances. Bier is more involved when we finally learn what Burr's bugbear with Roper is, focusing on Colman's face as she tells a story of seeing children bombed with gas, their skin melting and lung tissue coming out of their mouths. Roper had nothing to do with it, but he saw the same events and "he thought: business." I don't think Bier shoots these emotional confessions particularly well, either — the angle she chooses on Colman is odd — but the actress nails it, never pontificating but rather speaking plainly while wiping her eyes and nose as she cries from the memory.

It's a fine emotional moment that again reminds us of the hollowness of the central relationship: when Colman tries to bring Pine in after learning of his relationship with Jed, he refuses, compromising the mission but insisting that he's the only one who can catch Roper now. He's a human hand-grenade that could go off at any moment, hurting Jed, Angela and everyone else. I just wish he were also treated as, y'know, human.

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Stray thoughts:

-Hiddleston does get one good moment when he's trying to smooth over a lawyer who's reluctant to approve Roper's documents. He's simultaneously reassuring and predatory, something that Hiddleston's opacity lends itself to in his best roles ("Crimson Peak," the new film "High-Rise"). I just wish the show gave him more than a few spare moments to work with it.

-Juan Apostal is found dead in bed with a woman, presumably because Roper's friends know he leaked information. He's a minor character, but John le Carre has a skill letting us know who the smallest figures in his novels are and making us care when they die. Bier and screenwriter David Farr haven't managed that.

-Shallow pleasures: though I don't think the show is a particularly good le Carre adaptation or look at modern arms dealing, it does have a lot of good-looking people (Hiddleston, Debicki, Laurie) wearing fabulous clothes very well, so that counts for something.

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