The Russia House
John le Carré has had an enviable career in Hollywood. So far as I know he has never set foot in the town, and he has no screenwriting credits. What he does is sell his complicated, difficult, cerebral, seldom violent novels to filmmakers and lets them run with it. And because the novels are so difficult and have so little slam-bang action, no hack writers or directors are interested in them. In fact, the only reason to tackle a le Carré book for the screen is that you love it and want to see it done right. It’s not likely to make you rich. But it does challenge you to rise above yourself and give your all, your best shot, your whole being to the project. And as a result of that, I can’t think of a single stinker out of the thirteen movies that have been made from his twenty-three novels. (That is counting A Most Wanted Man, due out in a few days—1/19/14—and Our Kind of Traitor, in pre-production. There have been a few that certainly didn’t rise to the level of masterpiece, but the majority of them are solid, good films. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his first film, is seen as quite groundbreaking, and is the source of that saying that is rather common now: “in from the cold.” The BBC television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a bona fide masterpiece.
This one is quite, quite good. Sean Connery is a boozy small-time publisher into whose lap falls an extraordinary manuscript from a Russian genius working in the arms industry. Or is he? Nothing is ever quite certain in these books. What the man is selling is certain to upset a lot of applecarts in the so-called “defense industry.” A lot of rice bowls stand to be broken, as the British put it. He is chivvied into going to Moscow to meet the lovely publisher who brought the ms. to the West, in the person of Michelle Pfeiffer with a charming Russian accent. This is not the sort of book or film for everyone. There is not one ounce of violent action. It is all a matter of small steps, and then waiting, and debriefing, and then waiting, and then committing to a course of action … and waiting. The screenwriter (Tom Stoppard) and director (Fred Schepisi) have found many clever ways to make all this work and move right along. The supporting cast is wonderful, and includes Roy Scheider, James Fox, and the wonderfully wack-o director, Ken Russell. If that’s not enough for you, the backgrounds are simply stunning. This was one of the first films to be shot in the glasnost era in the soon-to-be-defunct USSR (the Berlin Wall came down as they were filming), and they shot this movie in and around most of the greatest buildings and monument in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). And though much of Russia is drab shit from the communist times, there are some truly wonderful places to visit. I’d love to go there.