Grown-up love: The Russia House (1990)

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By Scott Ross

When The Russia House was released in late 1990, I was reminded by much of the critical reaction to it of David Denby’s 1987 charge that The Manchurian Candidate was made in “another country” — one where a moderately complex thriller could be produced that would be a critical and a popular success. Made for a cost of slightly under $22 million, modest even then (and which figure included unprecedented and extensive location work in the Soviet Union) the picture opened to dismissive when not downright bewildered reviews by fools who couldn’t follow it, and a box office indifference that meant it barely broke even here in the U.S., even with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as its stars. “Confusing!” was the cry of the critical fraternity; one can only hope the people who thought and wrote such things never tried to read one of John le Carré’s truly complicated novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — I suspect the attempt would have cracked their brains irreparably.

Revisiting the picture now, in the recent Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-Ray, I was struck first by how many of its images of a Russia heretofore unseen by most Western eyes had remained with me these last 28 years; second by the degree of fealty to le Carré’s book Tom Stoppard exhibited in his slyly witty screenplay; third by the perfection of the movie’s casting; and finally, by the despairing sense that nothing has really changed in Western geopolitics, only gotten far, far worse. Today it isn’t (or, in some cases, isn’t only) the Cold War-benumbed CIA and Pentagon or even the feral and sociopathic Reagan and Bush Administrations that are pushing for deadly confrontations with Russia but alleged liberals desperate to delude themselves that, if they hold their toes at the correct angle and the stars align just right, the hated Trump will be removed from, and Hillary Clinton magically step into, the Oval Office.

The Russia House also reminds the appreciative viewer of what a loss it has been to American movies that Fred Schepisi has made, or been permitted to make, so few pictures in the decades since. Who else could have moved so freely, and with such assurance, between projects as diverse as Barbarossa, Iceman, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation (the latter of which I regard as the most successfully cinematic adaptation of any modern American play, at least until the Angels in America Mike Nichols prepared for HBO)? While I am far from a natural auteurist, it seems to me that Schepisi’s keen eye and equally acute intelligence radiate through every frame of The Russia House (which was luminously shot by his most frequent cinematographer, Ian Baker, and crisply edited by Peter Honess and an uncredited Beth Jochem Besterveld) without calling attention to technique as some of his showier, and far more lauded, contemporaries invariably did, and do. He combined the visual splendor of a Classicist with the daring of a revolutionary, searching always for arresting methods by which to convey information, even in sequences that must of necessity involve a moving panel of talking heads. As with old masters like Ford or Welles or even Sidney Lumet when Schepisi pans, or cuts, or goes to a close-up, the pan or the cut or the close-up means something. It isn’t there just to wake up the audience, or to keep it in the continual state of electrification now seemingly de rigeur in successful American movies.

Fred Schepisi - The Russia House

Fred Schepisi

This style seems to me perfect for The Russia House, a narrative which depends on our paying attention, to listening, and to looking deeply into the faces of its actors, because there are games afoot here, deadly games, and the human element doesn’t factor among the self-satisfied spymasters conducting the proceedings, only one of whom (the gentle Ned, played with a genuine sense of rue by the wonderful James Fox) truly understands before it is too late how perilously the un-planned-for hangs on so fragile a frame as human emotion.

As “Barley” Blair, the bibulous and quietly, even wittily, self-loathing minor publisher who unwittingly precipitates the events of the narrative and who is then compelled to participate in them, Sean Connery had a role thoroughly befitting the actor he had become after shaking off the mantle of James Bond, and toward which he had perhaps been shambling all along. Barley is in a sense the anti-Bond: Deeply suspicious of the motives of his own country (let alone America) and incapable of sustaining human contact he is, as he quite rightly describes himself as seeming, an un-made bed. When his interest in his Russian contact Katya blossoms into deeper feeling, he is as astonished as she is. And when he admits to her, with a look of rapture as unexpected as it is moving, that “it’s unselfish love, grown-up love… It’s mature, absolute, thrilling love,” that declaration becomes one of the great and giddy statements ever made in a movie.

Connery and Pfeiffer - russia-house-4

Quick study: Barley (Connery) uses his newly acquired understanding of spycraft to communicate silently with Pfeiffer’s Katya.

Pfeiffer, coming off her delicious performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys with its incandescently sexy rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee,” was fast becoming the pin-up for a newer age, one in which intelligence and talent might matter as much as bone structure. After watching her radiant performances in Baker Boys, The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons, I thought little was beyond her grasp, and that the future would surely hold more, and greater, treasures. Alas, how ephemeral are the gifts of the Gods… or of a changing audience, at any rate. How could the thrall of seeing a Classical beauty stretching her thespic wings compare with watching Schwarzenegger thrillingly blow up or mow down a few hundred more bad guys? Apparently, it couldn’t. She’s virtually without flaw here, inhabiting the character of Katya so completely she reveals herself to us only as she slowly warms to Barley. Her reluctant heroism, and her perpetual (and fully comprehensible) anxiety, seem as natural and unforced as her expressions of exuberant exultation at the denouement. No wonder Barley is willing to risk everything for her.

Aside from Fox, whose basic thoughtfulness and decency serves as a necessary counter-balance to the air of chauvinistic self-righteousness that surrounds it, the supporting cast is a wonder: Roy Scheider, at once coolly efficient and, paradoxically, passionately cynical as Fox’s CIA counterpart; Michael Kitchen, assaying a role one could easily have imagined Fox playing a decade or so earlier, limns the essential heartlessness of the Cold War game he’s playing with one orb, while eying a knighthood with the other; the splendid J.T. Walsh as a dangerous Pentagon martinet; David Threlfall, heartbreaking a few seasons earlier as Smike in the RSC Nicholas Nickleby, almost equally endearing as Barley’s unflappable handler in the Soviet Union; the late John Mahoney as Scheider’s CIA cohort; and, spectacularly, the great, mad filmmaker Ken Russell, who embodies Carré’s Walter to the life. At once exuberantly flamboyant (“This is just like school! Dear old, bloody old, school!”), witty (“You live in a free society; you have no choice”) and brutal (“Kick them in the balls every time they get to their knees”) Russell’s Walter is the merry prankster as stern taskmaster, the twittering old auntie whose ostentatious nelliness everyone around him tolerates because he’s so damn good at what he does. Everyone, that is, but the tight-arsed American “advisers,” for whom presumably every Brit is a faggot anyway, until proven otherwise.

Roy Scheider RussiaHouse_6

The great Roy Scheider.

It was no surprise to me to hear recently that Jerry Goldsmith regarded the music he composed for The Russia House as his favorite among his own scores to that time; it’s as good as anything he ever wrote. More startling was the discovery (from Julie Kirgo’s Twilight Time liner notes) that the rhapsodic theme, so seemingly and pluperfectly Slavic in tone, he’d already attempted to place in two other pictures without success. It’s wonderfully re-imagined here for the saxophonist Branford Marsalis (the sax is Barley’s instrument) and carries with it a yearning romanticism wholly in keeping with the feelings Katya awakens in Barley. The suspense cues are equally apt, and never overdone. This is le Carré, after all, not Ian Fleming.

The world being far from perfect there are a few minor cavils to be noted with the adaptation. The pseudonym of the Russian scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer) whose decision to betray his country to safeguard the world sets the plot in motion goes by, in le Carré, “Goethe,” has been changed to “Dante,” presumably on the assumption that most audiences would be puzzled by the former but at least have heard of the latter. And the splendid May Sarton aperçu, from Journal of a Solitude (“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being”) which serves as the epigraph to the novel is, although used several times in the course of the picture, never attributed to her, which seems at best a matter of gross ingratitude. The loss of a narrator, often disastrous in a literary transmigration, is in this case mitigated by the simple fact that as an MI6 operative in the novel he serves as a way in for the outsider, whereas in a movie, we are always inside. Most tellingly, the filmmakers omit Walter’s furious response to being removed from the team at the insistence of the squeamish Americans, who weren’t in on the thing from the beginning but once footing the bill are determined to bull their way around the end… to their own cost. The self-regarding impositions the CIA and Pentagon teams bring to the movie are only slightly diminished by this lapse, however; The Russia House is in itself a sharply etched portrayal of the high-handed manner with which we treat Britain as, at best our lapdog, at worst an impediment to what we want and are by God going to get.

The Russia House - Barley and Dante

Decent human beings: Barley and “Dante” (Brandauer) at a crucial moment.

I’m not sure I can think of anything else against the picture, and if the final moments of it are more overtly “happily-ever-after” than the more guarded, not-yet-fulfilled optimism of the book, it’s an ending that can make you deliriously happy, weeping into your popcorn at the sheer, fulfilling, grown-up joy of it.*

In these times, as in 1990, that seems to me more than an adequate trade-off, especially at the end of a movie that has played so fairly with its audience, and its source.


*Curiously, that emotional release is undermined when the scene is silently replayed, nearly in toto, at the end of the credits. In case we missed it the first time? For yet another tug at the heartstrings? Because the filmmakers wish us to understand that this is what it’s all been about? If we haven’t gotten that by then, it was too late. And in any event, it’s an odd lapse in a movie as otherwise rigorously un-sappy as this one.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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