Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #42: The Russia House

November 25, 2011

I saw The Russia House (1990) right when it came out, but I don’t think I was the right age to appreciate it way back then — nor the John LeCarre’ novel it’s based on.  I liked it much better this time, and it made me want to re-read the book.

This simmering Glasnost Era espionage tale stars Sean Connery as Barley Blair, a charming, run-down book publisher whose idealism inadvertantly draws him into the great game.  As the story opens, Blair is cornered by British Intelligence in Lisbon for questioning.  It seems a beautiful young Russian woman, Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), inquired after Blair at an international book fair in Moscow.  Ultimately she handed off a manuscript to one of his acquaintances for delivery to Blair, but the book found its way instead to the authorities.  The manuscript is, in fact, a thorough assessment of Soviet military capability — written, it is believed, by a man Blair met at a Russian writer’s retreat, who was impressed by Blair’s blowhard political idealism.  The British spies, headed by Ned (James Fox), can’t just take the information at face value, though.  So they recruit Blair to travel back to Moscow to make contact with Katya, in the hopes of sussing out the source of the material so that its veracity may be assessed.  The idealism that leads Blair to take the job, however, also fills him with internal conflict as his growing love for Katya — and for the new Russia — sets him at odds with his handlers as the truth gradually comes to light.

The Russia House is a subtle, patiently told puzzler with a twisty, ingenius plot — everything devoted readers of LeCarre’ have come to expect, in other words.  This one possesses a bit more idealism, and less cynicism, than some of his earlier works, perhaps.  While Connery makes for an engagingly mischievous hero, and Pfeiffer a fetching (if too-young-for-him) love interest, overall I wasn’t terribly fond of the acting, unfortunately.  The cast makes rather stilted work, I think, of a clever Tom Stoppard script.  Despite this, it’s a satisfying, smoothly unfolding spy film — a bit old-fashioned even for its time, perhaps, but gorgeously shot and  deftly strutured.

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  • Philip Brewer November 26, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    My experience was very similar. I also watched it in the theater 20 years ago, and now have watched it again and enjoyed it a lot more.

    In my case, I can remember being confused right from the start, in the early scenes where what we’re seeing is the initial attempt by Katya to pass the manuscript on to Barley, but what we’re hearing is his first meeting with the British security service and the CIA guy, talking about the meeting that we’re watching. It took me so long to get that sorted out, I was too far behind the curve to ever really catch up.

    Watching it again (yay for streaming video): yes it is very good indeed.

    I’m not quite sure why it so wrong-footed me at the time. I’ve got a much better grasp of story structure now than then, but it isn’t that complex a story.

  • Chris East November 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    For me, I think it’s just a case of being older. The 20-year-old me wasn’t quite as patient or experienced with this kind of story-telling as the 40-year-old me is. 🙂

    I totally take your point about the early stages of the film, too. That stretch is strikingly non-linear. I think my current viewing protocols are more forgiving of that kind of technique.