The Night Manager Re-View
The BBC has a solid history of adapting le Carré novels. With The Night Manager the BBC manage to make another solid le Carré adaptation. The problem is that it is solid by the skin of its teeth. Obviously as an adaptation some of the issues I have come from the source material, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll be referring to the problems in reference to the show only.
The Night Manager is well cast and has excellent production values. The use of real locations with sweeping cinematography is very excellent for TV standards. It has a great opening theme and overall the whole production reeks of class. So you’ll be forgiven for thinking it is good, but it isn’t, it is just alright.
Before getting into problems I should list what I like. Tom Hiddleston is always fun. Olivia Colman delivers a better performance than anyone. Tom Hollander and Hugh Laurie are having a scenery chewing competition in most scenes and that can be fun.
And there begins the problems. TONE. Much like many le Carré adaptations this show is going for a down to Earth vibe. It isn’t James Bond. Spy work is dangerous, but tedious and unexplosive. So it’s bizarre when you have actors like Hiddleston and Colman giving realistic performances to then have Hugh Laurie twirling his hypothetical moustache. One could argue that’s fine if Hiddleston is giving a good performance as he is the centre of the show.
The problem with that is that his character Jonathan Pine is a howling chasm of nothingness. Pine is established as polite, but perhaps a little broken. I say perhaps because it is hinted at and not really explored. Then Pine is thrust into an undercover role and he’s pretending to be a different man entirely. The audience isn’t really given time to get to know Pine before this change. The show even throws out random lines about him being a ‘changed man’ without any real evidence of that. We honestly can’t tell. He ends the show smiling and happy at his survival with no evidence of regrets. This isn’t the only example of the show lacking consequence.
We’re told the antagonist is evil. We’re shown he can order men to do horrible things. However we never see him do or order these things. He falls for Pine’s ruse easily. Pine easily avoids danger at every turn. Even when he is caught doing something it is by a character that is sympathetic to his goals. The one character to suspect Pine is killed by him and everyone accepts this. When the bad guys discover a mole none of them really question the new guy. There are references to consequence, but it never happens.
There is also no ebb and flow of storytelling. No real downturns in every episode that have to be overcome. It is as if the book was adapted into a 6 hour screenplay and then episode breaks were inserted at the end of every hour regardless of plotting. The novel has been adapted to TV, but not for TV. It doesn’t have the unique beats and rhythms that conflict driven narrative has on TV. And it doesn’t replace this structurelessness with anything else. Characters do some stuff in every episode and sometimes it is related to some stuff other characters do. The first and final episodes are best in terms of structure as the set up and then pay off actually has purpose in these parts.
On balance I should point out that a few characters experience quite a lot of consequence. The problem is that it all happens to the women.
In the first episode Pine is drawn into the action by falling for the wife of a horrible dictator type. She’s sultry and desperate and Pine sleeps with her. Then she’s fridged. She experiences the literal definition of fridging: she is killed off screen, with no sign of a struggle and thus revealing that she is just an object to motivate the male lead to action. The wife of a dictator risking her life to save lives is an interesting idea. Even the idea of this character having to sleep with a stranger to get her ways can be interesting if done tastefully. There is the hint in The Night Manager that she doesn’t actually like Pine, but instead of this being explored she gets killed (30 minutes in) to motivate him. I guess her personality was just vague sultriness.
When undercover Pine then begins sleeping with the villain’s (Laurie’s Richard Roper) wife suddenly he is motivated further. Said wife then suffers abuse from her husband. In the last episode when Pine’s ruse is revealed she is tortured. She does not escape herself, but she is rescued. She isn’t even present when her husband is taken down even though she is in the building it occurs outside of. We don’t even get a reaction shot from a window or something. It is worth mentioning that Olivia Colman’s character (Angela Burr) rescues her from capture.
So is this an example of a proactive female character? No. She saves the wife entirely by coincidence and only manages it by being armed with a gun a male character insisted she carried in spite of her refusals. She gets to briefly be the hero, but because a man told her how to do it. It’s notable that the mission only reached this point at all because Pine disobeyed Burr’s orders. It’s also notable that the wife’s only subplot of her own is about her abandoning her child. She fulfils her arc by returning to her child to look after him. That should tell you everything that this programme thinks about women.
Am I being too harsh about the gender relations in The Night Manager? I don’t know, but I do know that I was able to describe two of the three major female characters and their stories without referring to their names and only referring to them as wives. One of Roper’s subordinates even has a plotline about his wife running off with his kids… To be fair, Angela Burr’s character was male in the original novel. But also to be fair I should point out she is pregnant for most of this show… Take from that what you will…
This all brings me back to The Night Manager’s essentially solid core. It is a simple story told competently enough. In fact it is a paint-by-numbers undercover story. The protagonist is motivated to be an arsehole to get attention from the baddies, he has the occasional loaded conversation that he survives through wit, he has to push his morals a little too far but he never becomes the villain and he gets too attached to someone on the inside. Its execution of this is all fine, if unimaginative. The reason why The Night Manager gets away with a lot of this is because it looks and sounds good. It has incredible locations for a TV show, let alone a British one (albeit with AMC money).
It’s fine. It’s alright. I wouldn’t watch it again, but I don’t regret watching it. Its terrible gendered tropes are even ones that we’ve all be too accepting of in spy fiction for decades; even when it is being offensive it is inoffensive.
Olivia Colman is very good in it though and Tom Hiddleston does look good in a suit.
What is a Re-View?