Strange Vistas


Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager

The Night Manager feels like what a modern James Bond story would be like if they had the guts to break away from their old formula. Funny, because the book it's based on came out twenty years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the Bond movies have focused on fancy suits, cocktail parties, and gadgets (all things that The Night Manager mostly eschews). Espionage is drawn out and can be more about the slow maneuvering to get in place than any immediate, decisive action. You only have two hours in a movie, which don't leave much time for all that tense manipulation and second-guessing.

It's the curse of the movie adaptation. Good things take time, and there is only so much you can do in a couple of hours. A series has more time to develop stories in, but successful actors didn't use to give them the time of day.

A creative upside of TV's resurgence (and its streaming forms) is that production teams no longer feel compelled to compress a story into two hours. For years we had the stigma that serious actors only did movies meant for theatrical release – TV was where careers went to die.

A decade and a half after The Sopranos and 24, TV and streaming are not only respectable – they are places where actors and directors go for big paydays, where you get to experiment with formats that may launch franchises.

And, more importantly, where you get to take your time. TV series, even limited ones, have more room to breathe.

Enter The Night Manager, a 2016 adaptation from a 1993 John le Carré novel, where a hotelier volunteers for an undercover operation to get evidence on an arms dealer.

It's the sort of story that is meant for a serial, with its many characters, layered motivations, and overlapping intrigues, constantly ticking machinery that may stop at just the worst place.

With its six-hour run time, you get to gorge yourself on the embarrassment of riches that are the delightful performances that build up the tangled character web.

Tom Hiddleston, taking a break from his Marvel commitments to play Jonathan Pine, the eponymous manager, bringing a mixture of self-control, insecurity, and drive that you wish other spy series could muster.

Who gets recruited by...

Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, disappearing into her character as always, equal parts frustration and persistence as a bulldog of a British official who refuses to stop chasing after Richard Roper, even in spite of her superiors' blatant obstruction.

Which she does, doggedly, because he considers him the worst person alive, a quality that would be hard to convey if it wasn't because of...

Hugh Laurie as Roper, who might be the embodiment of evil, sporting the delightful, careless accent of an utter cunt who doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he gets away with things.

(Roper's characterization, by the way, is one of the best portrayals of a psychopath that I've seen. He doesn't twirl his mustache, he doesn't rant about life being worthless or how insignificant the little people are. It just never enters the equation. He is the pure opportunistic, transactional evil that our times have shown can so easily get ahead.)

Roper surrounds himself with a shield of accomplices, helpers, and employees, such as...

Major Lance Corkoran, known to everyone as Corky, his spymaster-slash-chief-of-staff-slash-frontman, whom Tom Hollander portrays with a balanced mixture of restraint and recklessness. Hollander can convey his distrust and resentment at Pine's sudden appearance with little else but a side glance and how he sets his mouth, and does his thankless little part and job with gusto.

And somewhere in the middle of this is Jed, played by...

Elizabeth Debicki, the multiple episodes letting her showcase a range she hasn't put on display before on a single movie. She has shown charisma, and Steve McQueen's thrilling Widows let her display a talent for flexible understatement, but Manager lets her play someone dedicated to putting on a happy face, and Debicki relishes it. There's a moment, later in the series, where her character Jed has to add another layer of pretense to the existing one, and for a couple of seconds it is clear to viewers how fake Jed is being. Debicki shines then.

(Debicki has the potential to become a 10-years-in-the-making overnight sensation, with the combination of looks and the acting chops she shows here, but she's running out of time for taking parts other than “sculptural blonde.” She should do more limited series.)

All together, along with the secondary scum and rats scurrying around Roper, make for an enjoyable, tense six episodes. It's a character-driven story. Having said that, even the tradecraft is entertaining. There's a fascinating little scene of covert communication in public, and sadly it takes the series a few hours to do that again. If I had to complain about something, it would be how much the current era lets the characters default to secure messenger instead of more creative methods.

The Night Manager is still great at creating tension, and that's what everyone is here for – this “great acting” stuff is something us movie wonks get off on. It is a thriller, and you are here to be thrilled as you watch the players creep into position, dance around each other, figure out how the corrupt officials are going to get turned around, and watch our heroes attempts to outfox a smug, smart fuck who doesn't feel the need to pussyfoot around and has no qualms about disposing of anyone who becomes an issue. There is no way all of this could have worked on a movie – tension comes, literally, from stretching things out. The series has the patience required to take its time with every aspect of the story, from how it waits it to introduce its monster, to how long it takes our hero to sneak into their confidence, to its eventual explosive resolution. The Night Manager stretches out its story as taut as it has to and, in doing so, delivers the stylish thrills a movie couldn't.

#thenightmanager #johnlecarre #oliviacolman #elizabethdebicki #hughlaurie #tomhiddleston #thriller #tvseries

Cora Tanetti's police file from The Sinner

The Sinner is an atypical murder mystery.

We know who killed young Frankie Belmont, as he goofed around with friends at a beach: it was Cora Tannetti, thirty-something mother, who on weekdays helps her husband and father-in-law run a home repair business. We know how: she stabbed him repeatedly, on the chest and neck, with a paring knife, exploding upon him like an angry mountain lion with no warning whatsoever.

Those two are indisputable. Not only Cora admits to it, but dozens of people saw her, including her husband and son.

What we don't know is why.

It's not that Cora isn't telling – she doesn't seem to know herself. She looks as shocked as everyone else by her actions, is eager to confess and declare herself guilty. Still, she can't speak to what possessed her to murder Frankie. She'd never met him before. None of Frankie's friends knew her. He was a doctor who used to play in a band; she was a mousey housewife and former waitress. They'd never crossed paths before.

She admits to it. She wants to pay for her crime and be done with it.

Detective Harry Ambrose, one of the two assigned to her case, thinks she is almost too eager. He takes a paternal liking to her, believes they are missing something. There could be some extenuating circumstances, some trauma, something that caused her to act this way. He wants to make sure they aren't overlooking anything before her arraignment. Her behavior is unjustified, strange. Nobody just up and does something like this, is his take.

So he's got his theories, and viewers do too. Part of the reason people watch murder mysteries is to see if they can figure out the solution before they hear the answer. That carries you through a couple of hours, but for an 8-episode series, you are going to need to have characters people want to spend time watching.

It can't be just Cora. Jessica Biel does a decent job, but Cora is a cipher, and as much a puzzle box as the reasons behind her actions. Her husband is a simple man, doing his job, buffeted by events. It's all on Bill Pullman's Harry Ambrose.

Most of Bill Pullman's recent characters come across like current-day selves of his Serpent and the Rainbow Dennis Alan. Dogged but damaged, survivors of terrible things, barely getting by and coping 30 years later. Ambrose is smart, with a work ethic that engulfs his personal life, but he is no Hercule Poirot. Pullman doesn't play him like a misunderstood genius fighting police apathy. Instead, he is hesitant, like a just-recovered alcoholic, unsure of himself and his standing in the group. He might be right, more often than not, yet his main hurdle is not the system's indifference but his inability to communicate.

Being right is not enough. You need to be able to make it clear to others and win them to your cause. Ambrose's stubborn I-know-better-ness doesn't help him, personally or professionally. The tension comes not only from if he'll find the pieces he needs, but if he'll be able to get others to even look at them.

Cora's actions are a tincture spreading across the community, staining, revealing cracks. Ambrose claws at these with his blackened fingernails, pries them apart, trying to find anything that can help Cora. Pieces drop out of almost everything he cracks open, but Ambrose (and the viewers) need to figure out if they belong to the right puzzle.

Would this be the one bit that would flip a woman from a quiet mother to a violent murderer? Why would this have started that rumbling in the back of her self, the hateful drone that she had kept down, chained, so that it wouldn't come out, and that even now, covered in blood, murder weapon in her hand, she doesn't dare look at?

The why is all that matters.

#thesinner #thriller #tvseries #billpullman #jessicabiel