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

  1. Sent or received SMSs can be seen via the particular device. Use the spy app to find out the truth, have a peek at the site right now.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There’s still one man out here some place.

Sole Survivor (1970)
(SPOILERS) I’m one for whom Sole Survivor remained a half-remembered, muddled dream of ‘70s television viewing. I see (from this site) the BBC showed it both in 1979 and 1981 but, like many it seems, in my veiled memory it was a black and white picture, probably made in the 1950s and probably turning up on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2. Since no other picture readily fits that bill, and my movie apparition shares the salient plot points, I’ve had to conclude Sole Survivor is indeed the hitherto nameless picture; a TV movie first broadcast by the ABC network in 1970 (a more famous ABC Movie of the Week was Spielberg’s Duel). Survivor may turn out to be no more than a classic of the mind, but it’s nevertheless an effective little piece, one that could quite happily function on the stage and which features several strong performances and a signature last scene that accounts for its haunting reputation.

Directed by TV guy Paul Stanley and written by Guerdon Trueblood (The…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

It’s all Bertie Wooster’s fault!

Jeeves and Wooster 3.4: Right Ho, Jeeves  (aka Bertie Takes Gussie's Place at Deverill Hall)
A classic set-up of crossed identities as Bertie pretends to be Gussie and Gussie pretends to be Bertie. The only failing is that the actor pretending to be Gussie isn’t a patch on the original actor pretending to be Gussie. Although, the actress pretending to be Madeline is significantly superior than her predecessor(s).

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.