Label: Twilight Time
Released: July 12, 2016
Genre: Suspense / Espionage / Cold War / Romance
Synopsis: A hard-drinking publisher becomes the go-between when a Soviet scientist seeks to forward state secrets to western governments.
Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / 1990 Featurette “Building The Russia House” (8:22) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
It’s worth pondering whether this particular adaptation of John le Carré’s novel would’ve been produced today, given there is no gunfire, no a single foot chase, car chase, murder, any act of violence, and the hero’s a sixtysomething heavy drinker who describes himself as ‘a disappointment.’
The production is headlined by Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, features a dry and superbly written script by Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Rozencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love), patient and precise direction from Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation), moody yet expansive cinematography by Schepisi’s longtime cameraman Ian Baker, and was the first major Hollywood production (well, perhaps more British) to be shot throughout the Soviet Union, but still: it’s a slow-burning love story between an improbably couple and whose de facto hero, a brilliant scientist named Yacov / Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) has just a handful of screen time before he literally disappears from the plot, save for one key moment.
For all of its gloss, in 2017 Russia House would’ve been redirected towards the small screen as a BBC mini-series, and yet at the time Hollywood figured a spy-romance set in glasnost USSR was timely enough, and it was both right and fortuitous, because the film is proof-positive that solid characters, wit, and extracting tension from increasingly dangerous circumstances can transcend the need for bombastic action.
Remarkably, our hero – publisher and Russian literature fan Barley (Connery) – is a reluctant hero and ladies man; he’s able to travel in and out of Russia because he’s a legit businessman, making him a loose canon among the Brit and American spy divisions that collaborate in a plot to verify Dante’s authenticity as a bearer of state secrets, and the smuggling of book-length facts that could determine world peace.
That’s the initial inference, given Dante’s an idealist, but what ultimately transpires is a conundrum for the spy agencies: acquiring facts that could diminish the USSR’s power and threat factor, but also lessening the need for rival states to buy American-made arms. Cynicism bleeds from every character, and no one’s a nice guy, but perhaps the most vocal and joyous cynic is Walter, played with exceptional energy by British Cinema’s lovable enfant terrible de film, Ken Russell (Altered States). Barley’s chief handlers – British Ned (The Chase’s James Fox) and American Russell (Roy Scheider) – shake hands whenever the other wins a particularly savvy chess maneuver, but they’re also realists, ready to support or pull the plug when advantages are optimum or the upper hand starts to waver into less favourable circumstances.
The romance between Barley and Dante’s trusted friend / courier Katya (Pfeiffer) eases into relative believability, but perhaps the main flaw in Stoppard’s script is the romance itself, which is always subjugated by the attention paid to Barley as he experiences and processes the fun in playing spy. Katya remains an underwritten character, and the wrap-up in the last act is far too easy: one expects the Soviets would’ve nodded and played along until it was time to off the two lovers and deny anyone any advantage, but Stoppard does auger that issue by having Barley himself maintain greater trust in Russians than his western spy handlers: ‘Russians don’t bullshit,’ so a deal, in Barley’s experience, will remain a deal if both parties honor their contract.
As a heroine, Katya hasn’t aged well and Pfeiffer can only make her so compelling, but she functions as our tour guide, and in 1990, allowed western audiences to experience the still-clandestine world of Soviet Russia, which in the Moscow and Leningrad scenes is a peculiar world of massively ornate, regal state-funded architecture, and palpable street grit, grayish skies, and grim stone-carved iconography adorning monuments and state hotels. The film’s also a time capsule of a world in transition as glasnost had just given way to the puncturing of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the gradual erosion of Communist dominance in Europe.
ENDING SPOILER ALERT
The film’s cheats actually run in threes: it’s not about whether Dante can escape, whether the secrets (the plot’s MacGuffin) will give the west the upper hand, nor whether Katya and her family will escape to the west; it’s about how Barley manages to maneuver himself out of a particularly sour pickle. Schepisi and Stoppard keep things unstable by omitting information within scenes and occasionally blendering time periods, as when Barley’s interrogated at the film’s beginning, and in the wrap-up where we’re finally privy to brief dialogue exchanges seen from alternate angles that allow us to grasp events and Barley’s own quick-witted decisions.
It’s also appropriate that Dante’s dire circumstances with authorities remain in the background, because he too is part of the films’ MacGuffinesque distraction; in 2017, we would’ve seen him one last time, under duress, before being sacrificed to the Soviet machine, but Schepisi and Stoppard cover his exit from the plot with a phone call we never hear, and whose content is omitted until the wrap-up – quite bold and brazen, given the only ‘chase’ in the film involves Barley approaching an apartment block, and hesitating entering for a moment. That tension point is also revisited in the wrap-up, but gains greater meaning when we’re provided with details that reveal Barley’s greater sacrifice.
END OF SPOILERS
The glue that binds the film, gives momentum to the extensive city tours, gravitas to Dante’s predicament when he’s off-camera, and deepens the otherwise fairly soft romantic subplot is Jerry Goldsmith’s score and Branford Marsalis’s lovely sax solos. It is one of Goldsmith’s most repetitive works – there’s the love theme, and the suspense theme – but it’s also one of his loveliest, and the cues and variations are often stealth-like, eases in and out of scenes but never distracting us from character moments. Connery’s undeniable screen presence trumps anything else in a scene, but the music also softens the former Bond actor’s hard edges, adding warmth to a character that’s a bit of a drinker, a mouth, and a loose cannon.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a lovely transfer of this underrated, unlikely espionage tale that shows Connery having fun with a flawed character, and Pfeiffer giving an underwritten role a bit of mystique and humanity. Goldsmith’s complete score’s been isolated in stereo on a separate track, and there’s a short 1990 promo featurette that offers behind-the-scenes footage of the cast & crew in Soviet Russia, and Lisbon where Barley maintains a modest pad with an exquisite view of the harbor.
It’s also worth noting how Russia House represents a period where the USSR was slowly softening its stance on western productions filming on location. Where the makers of Gorky Park (1983) had to settle for Finland, it arguably took Arnold Schwarzenegger to make filming in Red Square possible in Red Heat (1988); Russia House reveals the thaw that enabled greater access, although one suspects having one of the world’s biggest stars since the mid-1960s in town helped immensely.
Schepisi’s output as director never gained momentum, and since 1990 he’s directed 8 feature films. Connery stayed active until the dud The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), after which he recorded voice work for the animated film Sir Billi / Guardian of the Highlands (2012) – and that’s it. Pfeiffer, then fresh from The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) would achieve a significant measure of pop culture success as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992).
Also of note in the ridiculously talented cast is John Mahoney, Christopher Lawford. and J.T. Walsh as American spies and military figures; and on the Brit side prolific Michael Kitchen, Martin Clunes, and Ian McNeice in small roles, with the latter two ultimately reuniting every few years for a season of Doc Martin.
Ken Russell continued to direct films and episodic TV and documentaries, making the controversial Whore in 1990, and in spite of the huge success from co-starring in Out of Africa (1985), Klaus Maria Brandauer scaled back on Hollywood productions, perhaps sensing the offerings were less that ideal.
Other feature films based on John le Carré works include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1966), The Looking Glass War (1970), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), A Most Wanted Man (2014), and Our Kind of Traitor (2016).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review