David Farr, John le Carré
Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine
Hugh Laurie as Richard Onslow Roper
Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall
Olivia Colman as Angela Burr
The Night Manager is, essentially, a spy story: a damaged, mystifying operative goes undercover with bad people who live lavish lives. Given that it unfolds over a 6-hour period, it has the type of plot issues you might be expecting if a Bond film was stretched beyond its perfect run time.
Hiddleston has the highest profile of the three — Marvel’s Loki is in the middle of a run of attractive projects, and The Night Manager, an updated version of a John Le Carre novel, suits the actor’s usual classy choices.
But the actual secret to the show’s accomplishment is an extraordinary performance by Laurie, who is the former star of House. He has been away from TV for too long, so it’s great to see him dig into a complex lead role with a clear enjoyment. Laurie plays Richard Onslow Roper, a billionaire businessman, who returns to his abundant Mediterranean estate for some down time with Jed, his cagey girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Debicki.
Laurie depicts Roper as a man who knows he’s playing a role every single minute of every day. It’s a delight to watch the actor give tone and depth to a character who could easily be, if played incorrectly, a mustache-twirling villain. Roper keeps everyone just a little off balance with a charming blend of terse humor and an air of barely visible menace.
The Night Manager seems especially appropriate in the wake of the release of the Panama Papers, which exposed the way bigwigs use shell companies to stay away from paying taxes, amongst other shady actions. Roper would fit right in with that crowd, given that his true moneymaking plans are all but unseen to the media. As for government officials, many are far too keen to look away from Roper’s actions; he surely has enough money to keep them expediently satisfied.
Just as she did in Broadchurch, Colman plays a character who has neither the time nor patience for the sins and elusive actions of bad men. As the head of a small but determined enforcement agency, her Angela Burr comes up with a plan to catch Roper red-handed. The basis of her fixation with him is not clear until later in the 6-episode run.
In the first episode, Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine is brought into Roper’s orbit. Pine starts the story as the night manager for a luxury hotel, but rapidly he is required to become far more. Hiddleston is able to naturally switch into the smooth hospitality of a good manager; no matter what is going on, his primary job is to ensure the guests remain calm. This is a handy skill when he affixes himself to a wealthy man who’s accustomed to getting his way.
What didn’t work
It’s easy to get that Pine’s attractions to numerous women, particularly Debicki’s Jed, are designed to add an erotic charge to the story. But there is no chemistry between Hiddleston and Debicki (a similar problem occurs in the debuting episode).
There is also a very thin line between dullness and weakness in the character, and Pine swings back and forth between the two. The Night Manager’s storytelling and character growth open up in fits and starts, and back stories are not always satisfying. Sometimes it is hard to believe that Roper, who is a cold-hearted genius, weary of all, puts any trust in the elusive Pine, who is surely useful, but who is also clearly more than he claims to be.
The Night Manager is slick, but sometimes veers off into a void. For the most part, Director Susanne Bier does a good job, but she likes close ups of eyes and that quickly becomes old. The excellent cast, however, keeps the show going. It’s an exciting cat-and-mouse tale, full of skullduggery in classy restaurants, shady ports, elegant homes, and well-appointed hotels.