"The Russia House" was far from John le Carre's best book, but it had the advantage of topicality, political correctness and hammy central roles, which is why a version of it is up there on a huge screen beginning today, with two reigning movie icons driving it forward.
But it's still le Carre, and to expect anything different is be be hustled by MGM. Le Carre's world is shadowy, ironic, and dense, with its own opaque language; its complications are provided not by externally clanking plot-machines but by the character flaws of its completely imagined characters. You won't find any silencers, C-4 explosives or blue-eyed assassins: You find petty bureaucrats and dispirited amateurs, hopelessly inadequate dreamers tangled in a skein of events so clotted as to be beyond synopsis.
And while my enthusiasm for Fred Schepesi's version of "The Russia House" is deeply felt, it's also wary. In good conscience one cannot recommend it to an audience hungry for extravagant spectacle or cheesy emotions. In many respects, it's a lot like the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing," graduate-level movie making that demands utmost concentration and perhaps more than one pass through before its meanings begin to emerge.
The movie, like the book, is built on a single romantic post-glasnost precept: that it's not, as we have been told, Us the Good Guys against Them the Bad Guys, but rather Us the Civilians of all nations against Them the Guys in Gray Suits of all nations.
In this case, the two good little people are Barley Blair, a boozy British publisher, and Yekaterina Orlova, a mid-level publishing employee in Moscow's state-run book industry. The bad people all do wear gray suits, or blue blazers, and they work for outfits with a fondness for initials -- like MI-6, CIA and KGB. They are sharp, smooth and ruthless, and they can plan and prepare for everything . . . except love.
Of course Barley and Katya are played by Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, without whose Rushmore-scaled visages this movie would have never moved from script to shoot. Both are impressive, though when I read the book, Barley seemed to scream for Peter O'Toole's incandescent, gin-soaked, caustic intellectuality. Connery isn't bad, but he's so physically powerful that you forget Barley's intellectual component; and he doesn't have the glib, stage-trained Brit actor's glossy way with the tongue. Some of the circumlocutions Tom Stoppard's witty but twistily over-literate script provide for him feel a bit forced. On the other hand, who can deny the massive irony Connery's presence provides -- after all, he was once the world's most fearsome anti-Commie secret agent, blowing aways SMERSH boys left and right when he went under the name Bond, James Bond. The times, they are a-changing.
As for Pfeiffer, her performance is a complete triumph. Even the accent feels wonderful, and the quality of her beauty is changeable: She was as steamy as a tart in "The Fabulous Baker Boys," but here her face is innocent and radiant and seems to speak most eloquently for all the world's hopes of peace and freedom.
And then, the plot. Oy vey, the plot. Ooof, the plot. Damn, the plot. It's very complicated, but basically, it follows as Orlova, who has only heard of Barley after his last drunken tour of the Soviet Union, tries to give him a secret manuscript written by her former lover, a physicist high in the Soviet strategic warfare community. The manuscript argues cogently that the Soviet strategic threat is a sham. She cannot, however, get it to Barley, because he hasn't made the trip, being drunk in Lisbon. So she gives it to another Brit, who promptly turns it over to British Intelligence.
These boys in gray suits understand its significance and have to verify it. Thus they cajole the reluctant Barley into going into Russia, locate Katya and attempt to ascertain the reality of the MS. Ultimately a whole menagerie of pros are brought in to argue the issue, and here the movie will exile fully two-thirds of its viewers, as various factions struggle with its meanings. The Brits are led by Ned (James Fox), and the Yanks by Russell (Roy Scheider).
Anyway . . . Barley is then asked to put certain further questions before the manuscript source as a way of tendering him an offer to defect. But in the meantime, he and Katya have fallen into that mud-luscious pile of goop known as love. And it may be that the KGB has figured out what he's doing there.
Probably too much of "The Russia House" is white guys in ties arguing as they listen to tapes. But despite this, the movie's not visually dead, by any means. For one thing, the ever helpful Gorbachev regime has thrown the place open to MGM, and therefore that's the real Russia, the real Moscow completely outshining the stars. As a travelogue, the film is stunning.
Then there's Jerry Goldstein's rich, densely neurotic jazz score, with horn solos by Branford Marsalis. Great movie music, vivid in its own right but so perfectly attuned to the milieu and the rhythms of the story that it almost becomes a character in itself.
Ultimately, "The Russia House" pushes a line that also turns up in "Dances With Wolves," one that would have been unthinkable as recently as three or even two years ago: It's the idea of the noble traitor, in which an explicit act of treason is billed as a higher nobility out of deference to a more important principle. Buy it or not, it gives the movie a very happy ending, which, I suppose, is a good thing.
'The Russia House'
Starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Directed by Fred Schepesi.
Released by MGM.