The contours of the spy story at the core of “The Night Manager” are familiar: A damaged, mysterious operative goes undercover with bad people who live luxurious lives that leave them plenty of time for extracurricular activities. Given that it unfolds over six hours, the miniseries has the kinds of plotting issues one might expect if a Bond film were stretched past its ideal running time, and a little more clarity and a little less under-cooked ambiguity might have served it well. But it’s hard to resist the charms of the cast, led by Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie. These actors are so versatile and capably matched that viewers are likely to forgive some bumps in the road.
Hiddleston may have the highest profile of the three — Marvel’s Loki is in the midst of a run of interesting projects, and “The Night Manager,” an updated version of a John Le Carre novel, fits right in with the actor’s generally classy, smart choices. But the real secret of the show’s success is a phenomenal performance by Laurie. The former star of “House” has been away from television too long, and it’s a delight to see him dig into a complicated lead role with obvious relish. Laurie plays Richard Onslow Roper, a billionaire businessman who flits around Europe in private jets, occasionally swooping back to his lavish Mediterranean estate for some down time with his cagey girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki).
“The Night Manager” feels especially timely in the wake of the release of the Panama Papers, which exposed the way bigwigs use shell companies to avoid paying taxes, among other shady endeavors. Roper would fit right in with that crowd, given that his true moneymaking schemes are all but invisible to the media, which doesn’t have the time to sort through the baroque fronts he uses to solidify his image as a responsible businessman and hard-working philanthropist, even as he trades arms and other illicit materials. As for government officials, many are only too eager to turn a blind eye to Roper’s activities; he certainly has enough money to keep them conveniently complacent.
As she did in “Broadchurch,” Colman plays a character who has no time for the sins and evasive behavior of bad men, and as the head of a small but dogged enforcement agency, her Angela Burr cooks up a scheme to catch Roper red-handed. The source of her obsession with him doesn’t become clear until late in the six-episode run, in a scene that Colman plays with typically subtle yet charismatic intensity. In that instance and others, it’s easy to see why everyone who runs into the determined, no-nonsense Burr can’t resist helping her, even if it’s likely to get them into trouble. Her stubbornness has its roots in compassionate but clear-eyed morality — matters that don’t much concern Roper.
Burr, however, has met her match in the billionaire, who is every bit as tenacious as his adversary but also well supplied with money, influence and hulking armed guards. Laurie portrays Roper as a man who knows he’s playing a part every second of every day. It’s a joy to watch the actor give nuance and interior depth to a character who could be, played the wrong way, a mustache-twirling villain. Laurie goes heavy on the silky Eton accent, and everything about Roper, from his well-cut suits to his gorgeous home, looks sumptuous and smooth. Despite his gloss of bonhomie, Roper keeps everyone slightly off balance with a disarming blend of laconic humor and an air of almost imperceptible menace.
At no point does Laurie advertise that his character is terrifying; his ice-cold eyes do all the work. Even so, you understand why people are drawn to the man — and his vast wealth, of course. On his beautiful estate, an old fortress refurbished as a gorgeous, sunny retreat that keeps unpleasant realities at bay, Roper draws people to him, like a spider charming flies.
Through a series of events that happen in the first episode — the show’s weakest outing — Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine is drawn into Roper’s orbit. Pine does indeed begin the story as the night manager at a luxury hotel, but he must quickly become much more, and he taps into both his Army background and a facility for building slippery facades as the high-stakes game he plays with Roper gets under way. Hiddleston is effortlessly able to switch into the glib hospitality of a good hotelier; whatever’s happening, the primary job is keep the guests calm. It’s a skill that comes in handy when he attaches himself to a rich man who’s used to getting his way.
It’s hard not to get the sense that Pine’s attractions to various women, especially Debicki’s Ned, are supposed to give an erotic charge to the story, but Hiddleston and Debicki establish no chemistry (a similar problem afflicts the show’s debut episode). Moreover, there’s a fine line between opacity and blandness in a character, and Pine swerves back and forth between the two; “The Night Manager’s” storytelling and character development unfold in fits and starts, and backstories aren’t always filled out in satisfying ways. At times, it can also be difficult to believe that Roper, a wary, cold-hearted genius, puts any trust in the evasive Pine, who is certainly useful, but who is also quite clearly more (and less) than he says he is.
As is the case with its title character, “The Night Manager” is slick, but can occasionally veer into hollowness. Director Susanne Bier does a generally fine job, but has an affinity for closeups of eyes that gets old fast. If the program doesn’t quite have the heft of “The Honorable Woman,” “London Spy” or “The Americans” — some of TV’s most memorable and moving espionage stories — this lush miniseries nevertheless has much to recommend it. Tom Hollander, David Harewood and Douglas Hodge capably round out the fine cast, and as it heads into the middle of its run, it weaves together a generally exciting cat-and-mouse tale, full of skulduggery in elegant homes, classy restaurants and shady ports.
And of course, in well-appointed hotels.