Skip to main content

I’m nobody’s spy.

The Russia House
(1990)

(SPOILERS) The Russia House was greeted with public and critical indifference when it arrived in 1990. It isn’t too difficult to see why. Topical movies often fail to catch a wave that has already been well surfed by the news media. Why would anyone go out to watch a fiction version too (see also the numerous War on Terror themed films of the past decade plus)? Particularly when it’s packaged in a thriller that doesn’t really thrill (and the intrigue is mild at best) and a romance that entirely fizzles.


Fred Schepsi’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1989 novel came equipped with the pedigree of a Tom Stoppard screenplay and a prestige cast (Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer). It also had the selling point of being granted permission to film substantially in Russia (Moscow, St Petersburg). As such, it was a case of real world events overtaking the subject matter (the Berlin Wall came down during production), and building in an obsolescence much remarked upon on at the time of release. In that respect at least, history has been kind to it, since Le Carré’s essential premise remains as cynically as acute as it did then.


Connery’s Barley Bair, soused British publisher, is called in by British Intelligence (the titular Russia House, the wing of British Intelligence assigned to spy on the Soviet Union) after meeting a man named Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) at a Moscow writers’ retreat and subsequently receiving a manuscript from him via a woman claiming to hold him in affection but whom he has never met (Katya, Michelle Pfeiffer). The manuscript, intercepted by MI6, sets out Soviet nuclear capabilities, or rather lack thereof, and has set everyone in a spin, not least the CIA and their masters, who rely on a well-oiled arms race to keep everyone’s coffers spinning.


Blair becomes the reluctant (he’s reluctant, they’re reluctant) go-between to verify the authenticity of the contents, but the sugared pill is that he is instantly smitten by the glacial beauty of Katya. The core, then, is the old theme of personal values versus the demands of the state apparatus. For which, the purity of both literary and scientific fields (Dante is a physicist) represent the nobler and truer values.


The problem with The Russia House is that Blair’s repurposing as a wily old goat, intent to fulfil his promise to publish Dante’s manuscript and ensure the safety of Katya (only the latter ends up as feasible), never builds a head of steam under it. Schepsi seems completely indifferent to grasping the mettle (Mike Nichols was previously attached and, while no thriller guy, he’d probably have injected a bit more life into the proceedings). Schepsi’s solid enough with drama, and as a director of actors, but too often this looks like little more than a nicely photographed scenic display, with attractive stars in exotic settings.


It doesn’t help that there’s little in the way of the classic antagonist in Le Carré’s story. It’s not an impossible hurdle, but it means you need someone with a very sure understanding of the material to keep the story potent, rather than just a safe pair of hands like Schepsi. There’s a surfeit of voiceover and jumps in location and time during the first 20 minutes, an attempt to set out the stage in an arresting manner but one that proves beyond Schepsi’s ability.


The few sparks in the story come not from Connery’s meets and greets in the Motherland, but through the interaction and conflicts between the British and Americans. Blair, the romantic, pronounces, “I’ll back my Russia against yours any time” to the belligerent and unsubtle Americans; it is his drunken philosophising that attracts Dante in the first place (“The author was inspired by the opinions of a British publisher concerning world peace”). But even his lie to Katya about not being a spy (“I’m alone and that’s the God’s honest truth. I’ve never been more alone”) lacks resonance because their romance lacks depth.


Blair: Yes, because I prefer Russia. It’s as corrupt as America, but there’s less bullshit.

Perhaps the most memorable sequence, then, comes as the Americans seek to verify where Blair’s interests lie. JT Walsh’s military man Quinn has verbal rings amusingly run around him. Asking if Blair has ever had a homosexual experience, the publisher replies “Just the usual adolescent handheld job, the same as yourself, I suppose”. Attempting to damn Blair’s liberal background, he receives the response, “No, my father hated liberals. He took the communist line mainly”.


Blair: Dante was right. The grey men are keeping alive the arms race, which nobody was supposed to even want.

But the nature of the construction is that Blair’s precise moves remain shrouded until Ned (James Fox) realises Dante’s cover has been blown and Blair is calling the shots. It makes for very much a boardroom thriller, the back and forth between Ned and Russell (Roy Scheider, always great) is entertaining, but emblematic of a picture that mistakes a glacial, sedate pace for slow burning suspense.


As noted, the most arresting part of The Russia House is that it expounds the idea that a spanner is really thrown in the works of the entire military industrial complex if there is no Soviet threat. It’s what makes the world turn, and the quarter of a century since has exemplified the idea that, if you don’t have an immediate threat, you need to make one to justify all that expenditure (although now we almost seem to have come back full circle, such is the nature of finite potential foes); Blair’s “I thought we’re all supposed to be chums together now” is instantly shot down as naivety.


In some respects it’s a shame Blair’s May-September romance couldn’t have been ditched and Schepsi and Stoppard instead got to grips with the American-British tussling. The cast is a treat. Besides Fox, Scheider and Walsh, there’s John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, Martin Clunes, Ian McNeice. We also see David Threlfall in an early significant part as Blair’s “editor”. I’m not so sold on Ken Russell’s flamboyant Walter, however. He certainly draws attention to himself, but Russell exhibits the self-conscious movements of an untrained thesp.


Some of the spy speak is great, as you’d expect of Le Carré; the conversation about the psychology of the manuscript author (“written very quickly or very slowly, by a man or a woman, right-handed or left-handed”), or the analogy to a Picasso (“Its not my Picasso, Russell… And I’m not saying it’s a Picasso. And furthermore, I’m not selling it to you. And lastly, I don’t give a fuck whether you buy it or not”) but there’s a sense that out of his natural milieu (the Cold War) the author’s grasp on the state of the world is less cogent. Occasionally since he has come up trumps (The Constant Gardener), but The Russia House feels as half-formed as the more recent A Most Wanted Man.


Blair: I was brilliant: how to save the world between lunch and dinner. I was flying.

Much has been made of this as a great Connery performance, one of the few in his later career where he is really trying and not picking up an action movie pay cheque. Certainly, he inhabits the part more obviously than in comparable pictures (he appears gaunter; perhaps he slimmed down to play a pickled publisher) and he is decidedly not the hero we’re used to, wandering about in a Paddington coat and professing the feeling of “unselfish love” like an aging fantasist confronted by the vision of loveliness that is Michelle Pfeiffer (a mere 28 years his junior!). But whether he’s more suited to this role than, say, Indiana Jones’ dad, is debatable. I don’t think he has as much presence here, certainly, although that may be a function both of the romance not working and the lacklustre grip on the reins by its director.


Blair: If you ever manage to be a hero, I’ll be a decent human being. I promise.

Additionally, Connery’s about as unconvincing playing the sax as he is convincing when it comes to including his obligatory love of golf. When Blair informs Katya “You are my only country now”, it’s all we can do not to curl up and die; I did wonder just how much we’re supposed to be on side with Blair and how much to see him as a feeble older man grasping at lost youth. The final scene, in which Katya and her brood join Blair, suggests their love is supposed to be real, but there’s never any kind of chemistry between them; it feels more as if Katya has taken the opportunity of a life in the west with a benign older man. Which maybe she has.


Connery had, ironically, gone down a storm in a very retro Cold War movie with a modern twist only about nine months earlier. The Hunt for Red October had him (in a role earmarked for Brandauer) as a Soviet sub commander looking to – or is he – defect. It might have been a damp squib, but the very contemporary John McTiernan was at the helm. Connery’s post-The Untouchables second wind was typically variable, preceded by Highlander and The Name of the Rose, but succeeded by the likes of Family Business, this, Medicine Man and Highlander 2. He managed to keep one foot in the hits, though (Indy, Red October, and Rising Sun saw him through until The Rock). This is more the sort of character part he wanted to do post-Bond, but it feels a little as if the ship has sailed for him exploring such a potentially immersive role (hence he’s now the kind of star – not actor – who introduces golf to his character).


Pfeiffer’s very good in the early scenes. She gives a genuine sense of alien fragility. But Katya’s pretty much a blank page, projected on by her new and former (Dante) loves. She’s also presumably playing about 10 years older than she is, since Katya was clearly at least in her late teens during the 1968 flashback (not that Pfeiffer looked a whole lot different a decade after this, but it underlines the distracting casting).


Despite its topicality, The Russia House feels very strongly like the kind of picture that might have been made a decade or two earlier, particularly in offering the protagonist a “personal” victory over the establishment apparatus. We see this from the quite dreadfully unsubtle Jerry Goldsmith score, doing its very best to bludgeon us with “romance” and dampening any chance of seeing this as compelling, to the stately pace and languid workmanlike approach of Schepsi. The picture came out at the tail end of 1990, a potential Oscar contender no one thought all that much of (in contrast, at least it wasn’t lambasted like Havana, immolated like Bonfire of the Vanities or the victim of impossible expectations like The Godfather Part III). Its mediocre performance apparently signalled disinclination towards Le Carré’s more classical poised spyfare for another decade, until the (very good) Tailor of Panama. This is understandable, as it has the unfussed form of a bygone age. Underneath the lid there’s a tangible and ever-relevant engine, but Schepsi (and probably Stoppard too, to be fair) were unable to stoke it.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.