Friday 7 September 2007

The Russia House (1990) Fred Schepisi

In something of an Our Man in Moscow, Bartholomew Scott Blair, a British publisher is caught up in Russian intrigue because a Russian book editor called Katya Orlova sends him a manuscript containing serious inside knowledge . British Intelligence are very interested and so are the CIA. They track him down in Lisbon and discover that he's a lush for whom the drink does much of the talking. It seems likely that Katya chose him because people at a Russian writer's camp, especially a mysterious character called Dante, took his drunken ramblings seriously and through a valid belief that he wasn't a spy, but this also gives the western intelligence agencies a chance to insert him back into Russia as an agent of their own.

The Russia House of the title is the home base from which the Brits watch their new mole, in much the same way that we watch Sean Connery play him. He describes himself as a unmade bed and that's pretty fitting. I'm not sure I buy his saxophone playing but I'll buy most of the rest. I particularly buy how he comes alive through the playing of the game, to be a consistently better and more interesting character as the film progresses. He doesn't want to know to start with, but gradually gets drawn into the whole thing.

Katya Orlova is Michelle Pfeiffer, playing a Russian lady very nicely and looking as fine as you'd expect. Best of all is Klaus Maria Brandauer as Dante, full of depth and reality. He's the reason the story exists and he's what makes everything move. Backing everyone up are people like Roy Scheider and James Fox, who was always perfect for spy roles because he could layer deceit like nobody else. You never know if he's truthful or lying or whether he's telling the truth while pretending to lie or whatever other combination of opposites you can conjure up. Most intriguing is Ken Russell as an eccentric agent, who unfortunately has far too little screen time.

The story comes from a novel by John Le Carre, well known for his complex mind games and this one is no exception. It doesn't disappoint, even without Alec Guinness in the lead. It's translated to the screen by playwright Tom Stoppard, who does a solid job keeping both our minds and brains interested. The romance angle is key and surprisingly believable, given that Connery was 60 and Pfeiffer only 32. She was always good at hiding her age. The film is slow and we have to pay attention, but that's not always a bad thing. It's enjoyable yet somehow disappointing, but with some great insightful lines. It also works as a wonderful pictorial document of Moscow and Leningrad.

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