There is a great deal to be said for going old-school in the contemporary thriller.
The Night Manager (AMC, 10 p.m.) is very, very old-school, and that is a great part of its considerable charm and fabulously engaging narrative. Already a hit and acclaimed in Britain during its recent airing on BBC, it is just as good as the advance notices declared.
Based on a John le Carré novel and directed by Danish Oscar-winner Susanne Bier (In a Better World), The Night Manager mini-series has been skilfully shifted in setting and background from the guts of the original novel. None of le Carré's melancholy and tone of doomed decency has been altered, mind you.
Things open in Cairo. It is the Arab Spring. There are riots in the streets, and even the very posh hotel where our hero works is not immune from the general chaos and rage. He's Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a smoothly suave English ex-soldier, and he's the night manager. What kicks off the excellent espionage thriller that unfolds is simple enough. A beautiful, glamorous hotel guest, Sophie (Aure Atika), asks him to photocopy some papers and keep the copy in the hotel safe. He sneaks a look. The documents are about an arms deal. A very big one.
It is not giving much away to announce that Pine, attempting to do the right thing, alerts a friend at the British embassy and the documents end up in the London office of an obscure department of British Intelligence. The documents reveal that one Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a billionaire arms dealer who advertises himself publicly as a philanthropic rich guy, is doing some very dangerous business deals.
What follows is not unexpected. Pine tries to protect Sophie, has a fling with her, and then she's killed. Distraught, Pine goes to work in another posh hotel, this one in Switzerland. And there he runs into the infamous but elusive Roper.
What is vital in the texture and appeal of The Night Manager is the simplicity of the key events that propel the story. We see a lot of thrillers these days that are emphatically anchored in our digital age. Computers are always involved. High-tech wizardry is central to the narrative. But, here, a man copies some papers, they're sent to an office, and a civil servant in a wool cardigan (that's Angela Burr, played by Olivia Colman from Broadchurch) understands their meaning. Later, some simple, old-fashioned espionage manoeuvres, such as examining the contents of a wastepaper basket, are the key to the twisting plot. It's so very old-school it is terrifically refreshing.
And then there's cast. It doesn't matter that, according to the British press, the series is an audition by Hiddleston for the part of James Bond. He's just very good here. The subdued quality that is required to keep the tension tight is on full display. Laurie is having the time of his life playing Roper, a man described, early on, as "the worst man in the world." He's not ostentatiously evil at all. He's merely glib, shifty and very rich. When he finally enters the drama, late in the first hour, he strides into that Swiss hotel and says, "I'm Dickie Roper, my chaps have booked some rooms here." He could be in a P.G. Wodehouse story – as Laurie was with Stephen Fry – were it not for the menace that emanates from his henchmen.
It's been many years since a le Carré novel was adapted for television, and the long-form TV storytelling style is ideal for his work. The slowness of his espionage stories require patience, and here, that patience is honoured. When it was published in 1993, The Night Manager was optioned by Paramount, and at one point, Brad Pitt was rumoured to star in the movie version. In the context of this BBC version, that would seem to have been a mistake we're glad didn't occur. This is a very, very British series; steeped in le Carré's constant theme that while the British tend toward behaving decently, there is a moral corruption that prevents true decency from succeeding fully.
There are times when The Night Manager is startlingly unsubtle. Pine is haunted by memories of Sophie rather too often, and the lascivious shenanigans that are suggested as surrounding Roper's trophy girlfriend Jed (Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki), are rather glaring.
But this is a case where the faults actually add to the fascination. The drama is rooted in the plausible, and anchored in characters that are immensely agreeable to watch. The Night Manager is very superior middlebrow entertainment, a delight to watch; an acrid love story and a thriller that's thrilling from the get-go.