Review of ‘The Russia House’ by John Le Carré

 Le Carré’s novel set in the changing landscape of Russia in the post glasnost and perestroika was made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer by Fred Schepisi. It opens to wonderful visuals of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and suddenly one realizes how the Cold War is dead and we are being welcomed to voyeur such an interesting land with a deep history of tradition and culture.


Sean Connery essays the role of a realistic spy having done a lot of bombastic stuff in various James Bond movies including, ‘From Russia With Love’. Unfortunately Le Carré’s  novels are intellectual pieces that do not lend easily to adaption in a 2-hour movie format. While the movie does not have the legacy of Smiley and the Circus, it is still a bit tedious for an average viewer to walk-in and understand. It reflected in the Box Office results but I reckon it is still a good movie that stays true to the novel’s narrative.

Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair (Sean Connery) is a small time British publisher who goes easy on alcohol, beautiful women and Jazz music. He openly admits enjoying his visits to Russia and rubbing shoulders with the literary figures and discuss world affairs. MI6, the premier British spy agency, is interested in moulding him as inadvertently he has become a poster boy who has attracted the attention of senior Russian scientist – code-named ‘Dante’-  who wants to share critical intelligence and obviously defect to the West. The deal is being worked out through use of an intermediary, Ms. Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) a Soviet publisher.

Barley doesn’t know the lady and is least interested in engaging himself with the affair. He is ‘persuaded’ by the intelligence actors from UK and US to facilitate the deal and serve the cause of national interest. (You live in a free society; you have no choice). He is coached in the tradecraft of spying and negotiating with the opposition. He is a quick learner and imbibes the rules of the game to deliver a nasty punch as a true professional.

What I liked about the movie –

The movie had a brilliant lead cast with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer excelling in their roles. The middle-aged Connery with a paunch fitted the look of a debauched publisher who likes to be ladies’ man and play Jazz music as well on the Saxophone. He is required to look seedy and lost as Katya and his handlers try to play him off for their own purpose. But you can sense early that he has camouflaged himself and he is no man’s fool. The promise of his performance is finally delivered when he pulls off a personal coup in the climax.

Similarly Michelle Pfeiffer gets to essay a nuanced role that goes beyond looking gorgeous and speaking stilted English in a Russian accent. She openly courts Barley and then acts coy. She is very friendly to a point but takes care to protect her secrets. In the end she seems to genuinely fall for Barley who repays her love with the best possible tribute.

Te movie has lovely settings and the visuals of the Russian landscape are really appealing. So we see Barley and Katya traipsing around lovely squares and churches discussing deeply about the affair at hand. The English movie audience has not had much opportunity to see the real Russia in movies, so elaborate sequences in Moscow and St. Petersburg featuring their landmark locations is an added delight.

For once the individuals are not pawns in the game and instead of a grim climax we end up with love and laughter. Le Carré has carefully weaved in strands of hypocrisy and vested interests that seek to perpetuate the arms race at the cost of humanity to make the climax rich and palatable. Indeed it is refreshing to see that the game can be played in more ways than one though the writer has often sided in favour of the System against the individual.

What was a disappointment – 

It is a very confusing movie plot for an average viewer. For someone who has not read the novel and doesn’t know about Le Carré’s work it is difficult to follow all that is happening. Realism is fine but there is too much of the tropes – non-linear narratives, unexplained positions, use of jargon and lingo and far too many scenes of the drudgery and waiting that is the ‘bread-n-butter’ of the spying game. You would lose the audience interest early and the masterful climax would not be savoured by most. Given the limitations of doing a set 2 hour movie, it sure could have been made more viewer friendly.

Some of the characterization seems inconsistent – Katya is a complex person but undoubtedly devoted to her friend, the Russian scientist who is at the core of the plot. The way and manner in which she suddenly falls for Barley is not altogether convincing. Suddenly they are in love head over heels and plotting together rather than playing the traditional games. Barley even gets to mouth a classic one-liner while getting amorous with Katya, ‘You are my only country now’.

Even the final denouement is a bit of a puzzle – so we know that Barley is joyfully reunited with Katya in Lisbon and possibly they hope to live ‘happily ever after’. One just wonders though, ‘Why isn’t Barley worried about retribution from the powers-that-be for having scripted personal happiness instead of aborting a botched up mission?’ May be that is part of the rules of the game we hazard a wild guess.


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