British author John le Carre has been adapted successfully close to a dozen times, from the first (Martin Ritt's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold") to the most recent (Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man," featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performances), from film to television, including two top-notch adaptations of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." The template for success is there, so it's curious that the first episode of "The Night Manager," which premiered last night on AMC after an earlier run on BBC One, feels so lifeless, at least in its premiere.
There's a classic post-Cold War le Carre set-up: former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) works as the night manager of a Cairo hotel during the Arab Spring. When Sophie (Aure Atika), the French-Arab mistress of an Arab arms dealer, asks him to forward incriminating documents to the Egyptian government. Pine does so, but he also gives the information to MI6 despite Sophie's warnings that there are connections between British Intelligence and Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), another more dangerous arms dealer. When the information gets back to Egypt and Sophie turns up dead, Pine is furious when no effort is made to bring down the culprits. Six months later, Pine is the night manager of a luxury hotel in Zurich, and a chance encounter with Roper gives him the opportunity to do something for his country and get back at a mass-murderer. "I don't want to be involved," he says late in the episode, but he's already drawn in.
I have not read this particular le Carre novel (his first post-Cold War book), but the "honorable man tries to avenge a loved one/bring down a dangerous capitalist force" is a framework the writer would return to again with the more famous and well-regarded "The Constant Gardener." That novel got a strong earlier adaptation in 2005, and its strengths act as a mirror for "The Night Manager's" weaknesses. In the film, the connection between Ralph Fiennes' diplomat and his murdered activist wife (Rachel Weisz) is deeply and immediately felt, acting as an emotional anchor to the film's look at political and pharmaceutical corruption. Pine and Sophie's romance doesn't have that same charge: she recognizes the good in him and the conscience that will bring him to help her, but their connection is brief and contrived.
Hiddleston's casting is also curious. On paper, it's the same logic that saw Fiennes put in a similar role in the earlier film, but Fiennes is a more naturally expressive actor, able to convey a more sincere, haunted nature with his eyes and a half-smile. Hiddleston, by contrast, is a skillful performer but far more opaque, and his best works ("The Deep Blue Sea," "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Crimson Peak") openly play with his chilliness. There's no sign of that here, at least in the premiere: Pine is a well-mannered Englishman with a conscience beneath the patina of propriety. Hiddleston is strong in the early scenes, in which Pine quickly whisks himself around the Cairo hotel to assure guests that no, the Arab Spring won't interrupt their stay, they're safe, and please have some complimentary drinks at the bar. But when Sophie enters the picture, his opacity works against him: the two don't establish the spark required to power this narrative, and Hiddleston remains on the surface of Pine's haunted righteousness. The role requires someone who can convey his thoughts to the audience while believably hiding them from Roper's retinue, and Hiddleston comes off as too remote for everyone.
That may shift as the story progresses, but the miniseries' biggest stumbling block is director Susanne Bier ("In a Better World," "After the Wedding"), a filmmaker with a habit of artlessly mixing blunt melodrama and polemic. She's working with stronger material than usual here, but she's frequently working against it: there's little sense of the writer's bone-dry humor or the characters' interior lives, for the most part, turning the story's slowness from deliberate to bizarrely lackadaisical in the first episode. Bier's tools of choice, meanwhile, are hammers, ranging from mildly successful (her focus on the seductiveness of bodies, whether it's Hiddleston's torso or the long legs of Elizabeth Debicki, cast here as Roper's mistress), while Bier's trademark of extreme close-ups on eyes to telegraph torment remains as irritatingly blunt as ever. Some choices, meanwhile, are downright inexplicable, with a shot of Hiddleston through a grate largely obscuring the actor and whatever affect Bier is trying to achieve. When the supporting players (a devilish Laurie, Olivia Colman as the one trustworthy intelligence officer, Tom Hollander as Laurie's sarcastic right-hand man) show up, "The Night Manager" starts to come to life, but that isn't until the last 20 minutes of the 75-minute premiere. Here's hoping they can enliven a bit more of it next week.
-A caveat to my lukewarm view of the look of the show: I dislike the crisp look that comes with a lot of British television, "The Night Manager" included, as I think it limits the range of what Bier can accomplish and the sense of romance she's often going for. The shot through the grate is near-incomprehensible partly because of this, and the split-second choices Hiddleston has to make in certain scenes seem slower and clumsier because of it.
-The opening credits, in which high-society items (pearls, diamonds, champagne) turn to weapons of mass destruction, are silly, more in line with James Bond than John le Carre.
-I do like Laurie's mix of malevolence and odd approachability in the episode, particularly as he goes out for a smoke and sees Hiddleston. "A lot of people would have tossed that cigarette when a paying customer showed up," he says of Hiddleston. "Good for you." That's a stray sign of what I love about le Carre's dialogue, and I hope we get more of it next week.
-As a critic, I cannot stress enough how hard I laughed at the pronouncement of someone named Richard Roeper (or "Roper" in the show) as "the worst man in the world." C'mon, Ben Lyons was much worse.