The 1990 film version of The Russia House may be a product of its time, perfectly tailored to star Sean Connery and his character of a drinking, sax playing publisher getting more than a kick out of being a spy than his co-star Michelle Pfeiffer.
Barley’s also a character that may have been attractive to Connery because it offered a different take on the espionage thriller. Having played the definitive James Bond from literary character to action figure over that franchise’s first four films – the shift from Dr. No (1962) to Thunderball (1965) is unmistakable – and be lured back twice to play Bond when he’d said ‘never again,’ Barley was refreshing because he was a novice spy, and was the anti-Bond: a heavy drinker, a boisterous partygoer who shoot off his mouth among sensitive hosts and guests, and perhaps greatest of all, a man in love with Russia and deeply cynical of his British homeland.
Neither an ideologue nor a loyal foot soldier, Barley does things for himself and out of love for what pricks his interest, and in the end he does draw from the small resource of moral goodness within his heart instead of being a selfish wanker, but like the film, he’s attractive because he’s so uniquely flawed.
He’s also in a very unusual position: he didn’t seek out spy recruitment; they came to him, which means he doesn’t have to give a damn about protocol.
Moreover, author John le Carre and screenwriter Tom Stoppard recognized tension could be wrought from flawed characters placed in highly uncomfortable circumstances that could not only jeopardize themselves but many others – hence a film that’s pretty much free from any explosions, gunfire, and standard suspense tropes.
The same film couldn’t be made today, but that also makes The Russia House so special, because it captures a thawing Soviet empire not long before its dissolution. In December of 1989, I visited Berlin, and although a hole had already been punched through the wall and foreigners were allowed to walk in & out with passports, I still had to fly into that pocket of West Berlin and go through Checkpoint Charlie in a tour bus, and with other tourists, be taken to government appointed places that disallowed any mingling with East Germans.
I took just a few pictures on that trip, but East Germany, from the privileged perch of a tour bus passing through main streets, had that drab Soviet look which was eventually scrubbed away by the west after unification, and East Bloc buildings were retouched and cosmetically updated to blend with new architectural developments.
The running line from the tour bus guide was ‘the economy can collapse at any moment, but we’ve made great social progress.’ Pride on one side, and a corrupt Communist regime losing dominance on the other tip of the see-saw. That was and remains the oddest tour I’ve ever taken, and it instilled my ongoing fascination with Cold War thrillers, and the uniqueness of a closed society struggling to modernize as western influences are pounding at the gates.
Family friends had relatives in the former East, and I think it might have been in Miklos Rozsa’s autobiography where I read something about sewing money within a jacket’s lining to avoid surrendering all U.S. cash at the border for local currency otherwise worthless in international markets.
The world of The Russia House, circa 1990 on film, also lacks cellphones, laptops, modems, the internet, and GPS tracking, so there’s a greater concentration by the writers, the filmmakers, and the cast on human behaviour; you have to watch yourself because there are no buttons or apps to help you get out from a pickle.
As I mention in my review of Twilight Time’s lovely Blu-ray of The Russia House, the glue that binds the film includes Jerry Goldsmith’s score, and it was among the first CDs I voraciously bought while in university, and played repeatedly.
It is a repetitive score – not unlike John Williams Presumed Innocent (also released in 1990) – but Goldsmith almost exclusively relied on Branford Marsalis’ performance to accentuate character emotions. Barley is an aging fart living comfortably in London, Lisbon, and Moscow, but his life partner is a bottle, and it enables him to drift without any emotional attachment until he meets a young Russian divorcee and mother, Katya. Instead of being scared, he’s thrilled, and the discovery of that vitality gives Barley courage to think beyond his needs, and perhaps orchestrate a new life with a family willing to welcome another bruised soul.
All of that is expressed in the score, and time and again it proved a compelling listen for many years, which is why after more than a decade since the CD was played and twice that since the film was seen, the movie remains so attractive, gripping, and engaging.
You could even sum up what may be le Carre’s views on the lives of his central characters with that opening telephoto shot of Katya walking towards the camera with a parasol from what’s clearly a far-off spot: a precarious world, but among the pitfalls and blunt obstacles they encounter, there exists rewards worth reaching.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG