Character and Risk: What we can learn from the Night Manager

 If you weren’t one of the many who have been enjoying the Night manager over the last few Sunday nights, it is a BBC adaptation of the spy novel by John Le Carré, starring the superb Hugh Laurie back to his British best and the surprisingly delicious Tom Hiddleston. Who knew Loki was a blond? It also recasts a key male role from the book as the pregnant and ruthlessly maternal Angela Burr, played so well by Olivia Coleman it’s kickstarted a twitter campaign to see her as the new Bond.

I was one of them. I feel the need to clarify that in light of what I am about to write. It was a triumph for the Beeb, beautiful cinematography, sumptuous locations, great acting, and not just the above. Everyone in it was perfectly pitched. My favourites weren’t even the usual suspects, with both Olivia and Tom Hollander as Corky, outshining the two main stars. While Elizabeth Debicki – one of the few good things about Guy Ritchies recent remake of The Man From Uncle – showed she can handle dramatic scenes as well as comedy.

But I am a writer. And ultimately I will always come back to the writing. Even as I was chewing on my fingernails in apprehension, there were familiar questions, nagging feelings of missing elements that I couldn’t quite ignore. And if we want better, we need to stop starting at the bottom, start instead with the best and try to make it shine that little bit more.

The very first thing that nagged at me, was this

the night manager

 As Jed, played by Elizabeth Debicki, so eloquently put it, ‘everyone is attracted to you..

Tom may not have instantly sprung to mind, prior to this, as the obvious sex symbol, he usually plays bad guys in bad black wigs, but there is no doubt that the minute he appeared on screen in that (hats of to the costume department) blue shirt, pensive look on his tanned face, many remote controls suddenly paused when they might otherwise have kept on flicking. It was a calculated audience pleasing move. And it was just the first of many.

Mr Hiddleston’s bum may now have its own twitter account all thanks to that sex scene but did it really deserve a screen credit? Audience pleasing is something many shows are guilty of at the moment, and by that I don’t mean they leave the audience feeling pleased, but rather that they seek to pre-emptively acquiesce to their demands. They’re listening to the fans and using what they hear to actively create that rare magic moment of WOW #blewmymind. Except its not quite as rare as it once was. Every five seconds on twitter there is a wow moment. Or ten dozen.

It’s come to the point where things are essentially being written to order. Some may not have a problem with this, but I’m kinda of the mind that good writing is giving the audience what they didn’t know they wanted. Because it’s simply not their job to know. It’s ours. It’s not their job to understand that great romance comes from the missed kissed not the full frontal sex scene. That it’s the chemistry of what might be, what they long to see come to be, that creates the irresistible pull we call unmissable tv. That tension is about what we want, not what we get. Satiation involves rolling over not omg #mustnotmissasecond. (thats my last hashtag. It’s now annoying me.)

And very often – as in the case of the bum and grind scene – it leads to questionable plotting and contradicts the character we’ve begun to invest in. After his actions led to one woman’s death and he’s now so hell bent on getting justice his own life is forfeit, given the threat Corky has already made plain his interest in Jed will lead to, why would this man endanger a young woman for five minutes of grunting? Why isn’t he putting as much distance as he can between them? He barely seems to use her, she seems to have no access to useful information – which was initially touted as a possible route for him – so it seems foolish. A foolishness echoed in the constant glances between the two, the holding hands in the casino painfully broadcasting their feelings. Why? Perhaps because audiences want romance? Because they expect graphic sex scenes in anything that touts itself as ‘adult’ and serious. Because its an easy way to raise tension?

Then there is the ending. Romance, another sex scene – tender this time – everyone lives and everyone gets what they want – somehow, magically. Even the bad guy. Because can Hugh Laurie ever truly be a bad guy in the eyes of the British public?

A recent article by the man himself John Le Carré, noted that, ‘Richard Roper goes down winning.. we don’t want to let him go.’ And asked as I did, is it a matter of ‘two superb British actors of a certain class subconsciously giving out an aura of unsuperability’ although my question asks if this aura was tapped into by the writers and sub consciously – or consciously – led their writing? There is no doubt much of my own emotional reaction arose from my love of the actors involved and my desire, which created an internal tug of war, to see all make it through unscathed. Did they undermine the truth of their own world, of Le Carre’s villain, by being unwilling to deal with that ultimate show down of Hiddleston’s Pine against Laurie’s Roper? We saw him take out Freddy, saw Freddy admit Roper was the man who truly brought about the girl’s death and yet Pine surrenders Roper without a scratch to save the other girl. The one he put in needless danger for a quickie against the wall. Even the suggestion of how he might be about to get his just desserts seemed glib and tacked on, because it allowed the two men to retain a sense of respectful antagonism; two grand chess masters, and in that Roper maintains his dignity and Pine his heroism.

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And it was in the rare moments that exactly that happened that this drama truly shined and why Tom Hollander was so deliciously watchable. When we see Corky finally unravel it’s a moment of deep discomfort that you just can’t look away from. The kind of moment that sticks with you. The kind of moment I was really hoping for at the end. Because that was the relationship that mattered. A threesome – hero, villain and the ghost of the girl who might leave you wondering which was which. Not the pretty blond he ends up with. The initial romance seems rushed, while the later one is developed at a pace that allows us to invest in it. Is this because this one can end on a happy note rather than a tragic one? I like happy endings – I think that’s fairly obvious from my Pixar obsession – but tragedy has it’s place and if you are going to go that route, there is something innately dishonest, cowardly even, about hedging your bets.

Which leads me on to my second misgiving. Honesty and integrity are words batted about far too often when it comes to writing and drama, so much so they have become buzz phrases of the utmost irritation. They come across as pretentious, possibly because half the time the people using them don’t even know what they are on about but that doesn’t actually invalidate them. They matter. GRR Martin writing a happy ever after with Snow and the Mother of Dragons ruling over a sunshine filled land.. is not being honest to the intent of the author and does not maintain the integrity of the show. Anything that doesn’t know its own nature, the true motivations of its characters and allows that to guide their actions is dishonest. There was a taste of this with the Night Manager.

Most of which arose from lack of information. These gaps created inconsistencies, in Pine’s character, in Roper’s decisions, in the consequences of their actions. Consider the death of Sofie which triggers the events and allows Hiddleston to finally become an avenger. There is never really a sense of love thwarted, not merely because it seems rushed, but in Pine himself there is a sense of reluctance, which gives way to courtesy and obligation more than passion. My first instinct was the main emotion in play was guilt, but does guilt, especially when her own actions positively sought out his, justify such dialogue as ‘ before I met you I was living half a life. ‘ Nor the risks taken or bursts of intense passion we are occasionally privy to.

That sense of absence of evidence, of simply leaving things out, gives me very little to speculate with and wonder if I am even meant to? Did they ask the question or simply assume the obvious answer and then omit in pursuit of minimalist perfection?

the-night-manager-photo-promo

I have spoken before about my dislike of this trend of less within storytelling and it is evident here, because when you take away the longing glances, the rugged handsome lead, the grandstanding Dickie Roper moments, ‘war is spectator sport’ you have very little actual plot and a lot of conveniences. Why isn’t Pine tested more before being given such a key role? Why would a man like Roper trust so easily? Why do Big Bad Villains never get suspicious when the leak happens right after bringing in a new ‘mysterious’ ally? Why is Pine given full unchecked access to the money? When and how did the switch before the border happen?

My last misgiving returns to the ending once again. If we – I – had been given the ending I was hoping for might all other sins have been forgotten? That is the power of the great finale. But it requires something above and beyond, something few seem willing to risk these days. It requires in Roper’s words, that you commit fully. Here is why I chose the Night Manager, because it like a few other superb, highly rated works, is almost good enough to slip past, to ignore that little niggle at the back of your mind. It’s ticked all the boxes, hit all the right notes, the characters can fill a film student’s essay with suitably impressive words – sub textually, obstensibly, ambiguously; they are motivated, subtle, believable. Everything you are taught they should be. And they’re tropes. Which is the good version of cardboard cutouts. But it aint that different. Because in the end people aren’t – well they aren’t always believable. They don’t fit neatly in boxes – you have to cut something off to make that happen. People follow only the internal lines of their own hearts. And to bring that to the screen you have to be willing to risk displeasing the audience, risk pushing the wrong buttons, being on the wrong side of the political lines, with all the best of intents people can take you places you never wanted to go. You need to give us Corky pushing his face into Pine’s crotch. In the age of the twitter backlash is that something we’re no longer willing to risk?

I like the mystery of Pine, I might have overlooked the questions the opening scenes created, might have even found the semblance of an answer or at least the belief I wasn’t the only one asking, if I could have seen him with the prize in his hands, seen what he was truly willing to risk to hold Roper’s life at his mercy. In the end we’re still asking as Jed does, who are you? I’m not sure I would say it’s the wrong question, but perhaps we’re still asking it in the wrong way. That’s the beauty and the frustration of the Night Manager.

tom-hiddleston-the-night-manager-selfie

no reason for that picture at all. Except… well, enjoy 😀

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2 thoughts on “Character and Risk: What we can learn from the Night Manager

  1. I’m also guilty of enjoying it while questioning its plausibility, more or less, the whole time. It was subtler than a Bond, but with a similar appetite for luxurious locations and subtitle leaving you in no doubt of the location – even though the pyramid’s or the sodding matterhorn really don’t need a subtitle – and even an overt nod toward Bond when Pine orders a vodka-martini.

    Yes, all of your criticisms are valid: if things go pear-shaped just after the new guy joins, why allow yourself to doubt a long-time trusted ally, and what in hell persuades anyone to start an affair with the bad guy’s girlfriend and conduct it, more-or-less, in plain sight.

    Character motivation (and not just Pine’s) and not behaving like a cock were my main problems with The Night Manager, though if they make a sequel I will watch it. And there’s the rub.

    NB, I loved the metanarrative where David Cornwell, aka John le Carre plays a bit part in a dramatisation of his own novel and his character shakes hands with him. That was classic.

    1. yeah it was enjoyable and slick enough to overlook and I’ll likely watch a follow up if it happens.

      I did think that scene in the restaurant was the best in the whole thing, kind of wish they had pushed it a bit further. Did you read Le Carre’s own take on it? Quite interesting and sort of hedged giving a straight thumbs up or down.

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