Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Russia House

The Russia House (Fred Schepisi, 1990) "Nowadays, you have to think like a hero merely to behave like a decent human being!" Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair (Sean Connery), barely getting-by book publisher, deep in his cups at a Russian Book Fair, seals his fate with those words. His words spark an idea in one of his audience-members and a plan of international repercussions is set in place. 

Some time later, he is sought out specifically—by a young Russian woman—not with a potential manuscript to be overseen for publishing, but with documents containing secrets of Soviet nuclear capabilities from a very reputable source. He soon finds himself wanted by both British Intelligence and the Russians, both looking for a hero in a final End Game in the Cold War in John le Carré's indictment of spies who don't even have the sense to come in from the cold.
Scott Blair becomes a hapless go-between for secrets, dispensed by a radical Russian scientist code-named "Dante"* (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who is willing to betray his country for The Good Fight for World Peace. He's enlisted his lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) to contact Blair—the one man "Dante" trusts to smuggle his journals into the West for the purpose of publishing them. But "The Russia House," that wing of the Intelligence Service looking East, gets wind of it first and enlists Barley in an effort to learn as much about Russian nuclear capabilities as they can. Soon, he's wired for sound, followed by surveillance by the Brits (working with U.S. Intelligence) and embarks for a Russia about to collapse in Soviet dis-Union. He's starting to fall himself—for Katya—but, constantly monitored and miked, he'll have to resort to whispering sweet nothings in her ear. It couldn't be more appropriate.
It's a master-stroke to get Connery to play this non-spy in John le Carré's literary world of "anti-Bond's." His long association with 007 is cast aside as he approaches the role bearded, curly-haired and gray, crotchety...and vulnerable, set upon by the author's tweedy grey men smug in their patriotism but lacking in honor. Tom Stoppard's screenplay takes a few bends out of le Carré's labyrinthine plot, but none of the complications in the ethics and politics of strange bedfellows in matters of the State and the heart. The production is top-notch, filmed in Portugal and the Soviet Union, with an eye-popping cast of character actors supporting the Connery, Pfeiffer, Brandauer troika. On the British side are James Fox, Michael Kitchen, Ian McNeice, and...Ken Russell! The Americans are Roy Scheider, J.T. Walsh, and John Mahoney, all salamander-cool and not to be trusted.
But the best part of The Russia House is the sub-text, which is all le Carré's. Distrustful of his brethren in the spy-hood, the author has always been able to forecast a new sin for them to exploit or fall prey to, and David Cornwell (le Carré's nom de réalité) could see the upcoming glasnost and perestroika and see the frosty battles continue un-thawed. Nothing worse or nosier than a spy with nothing to do and not know it. So he looked forward and looked to the past and compared and contrasted.
Remember this, if you must: a bitter cad who sticks his neck out for nobody, a committed idealogue fighting impossible odds, and the woman who is caught in between them. It's Casablanca. But the milieu is wrong. Where the 1945 film is about choosing "the cause" and "the good fight" in a "mixed up, crazy world," in the world of The Russia House, lives are being lost in a quest for worthless secrets...worthless because the other side already has them. The only thing to be gained in the cat-and-mouse games being played are the budgets being authorized for the cat and the mouse. In such a compromised clime, the problems of two little people do amount to much more than a hill of beans, they are a world-entire of pledges to be kept and sanctity to be upheld. They are the only ideals left amidst the corruption. In such a world, the fundamental things no longer apply. And by basing his story on that timeless tale of love and sacrifice, le Carré throws into stark relief the world of today and that world. Of a "mature, grown-up love" held against a world playing matter what the future brings, as time goes by

* In the book, he was, more appropriately, "Goethe"—the man who wrote about making deals with the devil, rather than about his territory.

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