The Russia House
The Russia House was greeted with public and critical indifference when it arrived in 1990. It isn’t too difficult to see why. Topical movies often fail to catch a wave that has already been well surfed by the news media. Why would anyone go out to watch a fiction version too (see also the numerous War on Terror themed films of the past decade plus)? Particularly when it’s packaged in a thriller that doesn’t really thrill (and the intrigue is mild at best) and a romance that entirely fizzles.
Fred Schepsi’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1989 novel came equipped with the pedigree of a Tom Stoppard screenplay and a prestige cast (Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer). It also had the selling point of being granted permission to film substantially in Russia (Moscow, St Petersburg). As such, it was a case of real-world events overtaking the subject matter (the Berlin Wall came down during production), and building in an obsolescence much remarked upon on at the time of release. In that respect at least, history has been kind to it, since Le Carré’s essential premise remains as cynically as acute as it did then.
Connery’s Barley Bair, soused British publisher, is called in by British Intelligence (the titular Russia House, the wing of British Intelligence assigned to spy on the Soviet Union) after meeting a man named Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) at a Moscow writers’ retreat and subsequently receiving a manuscript from him via a woman claiming to hold him in affection but whom he has never met (Katya, Michelle Pfeiffer). The manuscript, intercepted by MI6, sets out Soviet nuclear capabilities, or rather lack thereof, and has set everyone in a spin, not least the CIA and their masters, who rely on a well-oiled arms race to keep everyone’s coffers spinning.
Blair becomes the reluctant (he’s reluctant, they’re reluctant) go-between to verify the authenticity of the contents, but the sugared pill is that he is instantly smitten by the glacial beauty of Katya. The core, then, is the old theme of personal values versus the demands of the state apparatus. For which, the purity of both literary and scientific fields (Dante is a physicist) represent the nobler and truer values.
The problem with The Russia House is that Blair’s repurposing as a wily old goat, intent to fulfil his promise to publish Dante’s manuscript and ensure the safety of Katya (only the latter ends up as feasible), never builds a head of steam under it. Schepsi seems completely indifferent to grasping the mettle (Mike Nichols was previously attached and, while no thriller guy, he’d probably have injected a bit more life into the proceedings). Schepsi’s solid enough with drama, and as a director of actors, but too often this looks like little more than a nicely photographed scenic display, with attractive stars in exotic settings.
It doesn’t help that there’s little in the way of the classic antagonist in Le Carré’s story. It’s not an impossible hurdle, but it means you need someone with a very sure understanding of the material to keep the story potent, rather than just a safe pair of hands like Schepsi. There’s a surfeit of voiceover and jumps in location and time during the first twenty minutes, an attempt to set out the stage in an arresting manner but one that proves beyond Schepsi’s ability.
The few sparks in the story come not from Connery’s meets and greets in the Motherland, but through the interaction and conflicts between the British and Americans. Blair, the romantic, pronounces, “I’ll back my Russia against yours any time” to the belligerent and unsubtle Americans; it is his drunken philosophising that attracts Dante in the first place (“The author was inspired by the opinions of a British publisher concerning world peace”). But even his lie to Katya about not being a spy (“I’m alone and that’s the God’s honest truth. I’ve never been more alone”) lacks resonance because their romance lacks depth.
Blair: Yes, because I prefer Russia. It’s as corrupt as America, but there’s less bullshit.
Perhaps the most memorable sequence, then, comes as the Americans seek to verify where Blair’s interests lie. JT Walsh’s military man Quinn has verbal rings amusingly run around him. Asking if Blair has ever had a homosexual experience, the publisher replies “Just the usual adolescent handheld job, the same as yourself, I suppose”. Attempting to damn Blair’s liberal background, he receives the response, “No, my father hated liberals. He took the communist line mainly”.
Blair: Dante was right. The grey men are keeping alive the arms race, which nobody was supposed to even want.
But the nature of the construction is that Blair’s precise moves remain shrouded until Ned (James Fox) realises Dante’s cover has been blown and Blair is calling the shots. It makes for very much a boardroom thriller, the back and forth between Ned and Russell (Roy Scheider, always great) is entertaining, but emblematic of a picture that mistakes a glacial, sedate pace for slow burning suspense.
As noted, the most arresting part of The Russia House is that it expounds the idea that a spanner is really thrown in the works of the entire military industrial complex if there is no Soviet threat. It’s what makes the world turn, and the quarter of a century since has exemplified the idea that, if you don’t have an immediate threat, you need to make one to justify all that expenditure (although now we almost seem to have come back full circle, such is the nature of finite potential foes); Blair’s “I thought we’re all supposed to be chums together now” is instantly shot down as naivety.
In some respects, it’s a shame Blair’s May-September romance couldn’t have been ditched and Schepsi and Stoppard instead got to grips with the American-British tussling. The cast is a treat. Besides Fox, Scheider and Walsh, there’s John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, Martin Clunes, Ian McNeice. We also see David Threlfall in an early significant part as Blair’s “editor”. I’m not so sold on Ken Russell’s flamboyant Walter, however. He certainly draws attention to himself, but Russell exhibits the self-conscious movements of an untrained thesp.
Some of the spy speak is great, as you’d expect of Le Carré; the conversation about the psychology of the manuscript author (“written very quickly or very slowly, by a man or a woman, right-handed or left-handed”), or the analogy to a Picasso (“It’s not my Picasso, Russell… And I’m not saying it’s a Picasso. And furthermore, I’m not selling it to you. And lastly, I don’t give a fuck whether you buy it or not”) but there’s a sense that out of his natural milieu (the Cold War) the author’s grasp on the state of the world is less cogent. Occasionally since he has come up trumps (The Constant Gardener), but The Russia House feels as half-formed as the more recent A Most Wanted Man.
Blair: I was brilliant: how to save the world between lunch and dinner. I was flying.
Much has been made of this as a great Connery performance, one of the few in his later career where he is really trying and not picking up an action movie pay cheque. Certainly, he inhabits the part more obviously than in comparable pictures (he appears gaunter; perhaps he slimmed down to play a pickled publisher) and he is decidedly not the hero we’re used to, wandering about in a Paddington coat and professing the feeling of “unselfish love” like an aging fantasist confronted by the vision of loveliness that is Michelle Pfeiffer (a mere 28 years his junior!). But whether he’s more suited to this role than, say, Indiana Jones’ dad, is debatable. I don’t think he has as much presence here, certainly, although that may be a function both of the romance not working and the lacklustre grip on the reins by its director.
Blair: If you ever manage to be a hero, I’ll be a decent human being. I promise.
Additionally, Connery’s about as unconvincing playing the sax as he is convincing when it comes to including his obligatory love of golf. When Blair informs Katya “You are my only country now”, it’s all we can do not to curl up and die; I did wonder just how much we’re supposed to be on side with Blair and how much to see him as a feeble older man grasping at lost youth. The final scene, in which Katya and her brood join Blair, suggests their love is supposed to be real, but there’s never any kind of chemistry between them; it feels more as if Katya has taken the opportunity of a life in the west with a benign older man. Which maybe she has.
Connery had, ironically, gone down a storm in a very retro Cold War movie with a modern twist only about nine months earlier. The Hunt for Red October had him (in a role earmarked for Brandauer) as a Soviet sub commander looking to – or is he – defect. It might have been a damp squib, but the very contemporary John McTiernan was at the helm. Connery’s post-The Untouchables second wind was typically variable, preceded by Highlander and The Name of the Rose, but succeeded by the likes of Family Business, this, Medicine Man and Highlander 2. He managed to keep one foot in the hits, though (Indy, Red October, and Rising Sun saw him through until The Rock). This is more the sort of character part he wanted to do post-Bond, but it feels a little as if the ship has sailed for him exploring such a potentially immersive role (hence he’s now the kind of star – not actor – who introduces golf to his character).
Pfeiffer’s very good in the early scenes. She gives a genuine sense of alien fragility. But Katya’s pretty much a blank page, projected on by her new and former (Dante) loves. She’s also presumably playing about ten years older than she is, since Katya was clearly in at least her late teens during the 1968 flashback (not that Pfeiffer looked a whole lot different a decade after this, but it underlines the distracting casting).
Despite its topicality, The Russia House feels very strongly like the kind of picture that might have been made a decade or two earlier, particularly in offering the protagonist a “personal” victory over the establishment apparatus. We see this from the quite dreadfully unsubtle Jerry Goldsmith score, doing its very best to bludgeon us with “romance” and dampening any chance of seeing this as compelling, to the stately pace and languid workmanlike approach of Schepsi. The picture came out at the tail end of 1990, a potential Oscar contender no one thought all that much of (in contrast, at least it wasn’t lambasted like Havana, immolated like Bonfire of the Vanities or the victim of impossible expectations like The Godfather Part III). Its mediocre performance apparently signalled disinclination towards Le Carré’s more classical poised spyfare for another decade, until the (very good) Tailor of Panama. This is understandable, as it has the unfussed form of a bygone age. Underneath the lid there’s a tangible and ever-relevant engine, but Schepsi (and probably Stoppard too, to be fair) were unable to stoke it.