Spy 100, #42: The Russia House

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 le Carré 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 inadvertently 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 when the truth gradually comes to light.

The Russia House is a subtle, patiently told puzzler with a twisty, ingenious plot — everything devoted readers of le Carré 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 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 structured.

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