"The Night Manager" swings back and forth between feeling like it's adapted from John le Carre's work and seeming like it's part of a much blander, less interesting story of international intrigue. Much of the supporting cast — Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman — are in line with the terse, dry world that the author works in, but as they're not the primary focus, they're lost in the brooding morass that is the story of how Tom Hiddleston's Jonathan Pine made his way to arms dealer Richard Roper's inner circle.
That story feels like dead weight compared to what bookends it: Roper (Laurie), his much younger American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and his young son Daniel (Noah Jupe) meet for dinner with Sandy (Alistair Petrie) and Caroline (Natasha Little), Lord and Lady Langbourne and fellow arms dealers, when two men take Daniel hostage. Pine, now working under the alias "Thomas Quince" as the sous chef in a Spanish restaurant, stops the plot, which he and British intelligence orchestrated, but goes too far, breaking the arm of one of the assailants and getting the daylights beaten out of him in return. Roper pays for his recovery and allows him in his compound after recognizing him, and right-hand man Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander) finds that there's a warrant out for a thief named Thomas Quince/Jonathan Pine. That's enough to get him in for the moment, but Corkoran's still suspicious, and Roper's still dangerous.
The scenes in Spain are the best in "The Night Manager" so far, with a relatively light and breezy atmosphere punctuated by moments of violence and menace. Roper is fleshed out a bit, Laurie getting a chance to show his more playful side as Jed jokes that she's found another handsome date in his son ("I wouldn't put it past him," he says, later joking "You drink my wine and you steal my woman" when his son gets a taste of champagne). One can see how a malevolent force like Roper could charm his way into a respectable place in British society here, and there's even a flash of cold-hearted amusement when Pine, keeping his cover, begs for them not to call the police after he's had his face beaten to a pulp.
But before we get to Pine's heroic rescue under an anti-hero guise, we spend the majority of the hour with him in England under the alias "Jack Lyndon." Angela Burr (Colman), the one MI6 operative actively trying to bring down Roper, has convinced him to take on a new role to get revenge for Sophie. "You are going to give the performance of your life," she tells him, asking him to bring out his inner psychopath and become "the second-worst person in the world" after Roper, the only way to win the man's trust. First, he needs a criminal background, and he moves to a cottage in Devon, England, where he deals drugs, gets in fights, and, in a break from the nasty character he's playing, has an affair with Marilyn (Hannah Steele), the woman renting out the cottage to him.
I'm trying to decide whether writer David Farr and director Susanne Bier should have fleshed out this section of the story, simplified it, or elided it altogether. Whatever the case, what shows up on the screen doesn't work at all: Pine's sins in Devon are murkily detailed, his affair as thinly drawn as his relationship with Sophie in episode one. Hiddleston is better-suited to play a tortured hero pretending to be a criminal than he is the loyal ex-serviceman that showed up last week, but the episode never gets in his head, so his anguish never amounts to much more than a series of poses. Steele is solid in her threadbare role, but she's little more than a future testimony (following her finding Pine's cottage full of blood), an anti-alibi to make him look like the bad man he's portraying, so the time spent on their relationship and the crimes around it in Devon (the majority of the episode) feels like a waste.
I'm equally exasperated by the presentation of the inter-agency intrigue and squabbling that Burr and American agent Joel Steadman (David Harewood) deal with throughout the episode. In le Carre's novels and in the best adaptations of his novels, process reveals character, whether it's George Smiley's detachment or Alec Leamas' desperation. Last night, following the episode's end, I watched a few minutes of Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," and I was struck anew by how Alfredson emphasizes surfaces to underline the isolation of the characters, and how perfectly Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and company perform that isolation. Here, the performers are doing the work, but Bier shoots them with such a bland sense of prestige (medium shots, little variation outside of the inexplicable, unmotivated eye close-ups) that it obliterates all sense of psychology, and when you remove that from le Carre, you're removing the heart.
Things improve a bit when we skip back to the rescue and give the villains a chance to cut loose. Laurie's courtly menace is still a good deal of fun, but I'm most impressed by Hollander, whose bone-dry scene with Pine late in the episode is a highlight. The actor has an even thinner veneer of cordiality, a hint over a brusque demeanor that says he'll ask you if it's OK with you if he takes out a cigarette, but he's going to do it regardless. Bier still undercuts the scene with an unmotivated camera shake when Hollander comes out and says what's on his mind (he thinks Pine is "stringing us along"), but he performs it so well that it's a minor distraction. As soon as Pine is better, he's going to "string [him] up by those lovely ankles until the truth falls out of you by gravity." Forget the posing performance Hiddleston's giving: this is the work I'm looking forward to next week.
-We get a little bit of material with Debicki, who gets a call from her drunk mother (who calls her a whore), but again I'm mostly distracted by Bier's direction. In the opening scene of Debicki showering and dressing, Bier shoots for something seductive but gets closer to a mediocre perfume commercial; in her scene by Pine's bedside, she's largely obscured by an object in the foreground, with the camera losing more of her face on every slight move. Similar to a moment that mostly obscured Pine behind a grate last week, I have no idea what Bier's trying to achieve formally.
-Colman does heroic work considering how little she's given, nailing Burr's plainspoken, honest nature with a hint of dry humor that most of the episode is missing.
-God, I hope Hiddleston gets more to play next week. Being around Laurie and Hollander should get him to work with his natural opacity and walk the line between menace and decency, but I'm getting a bit nervous after the first two episodes.