Making Russia Personal
As we progress through this Russian winter of ongoing debate as to whether or not certain e-mail hacking activities influenced the now-electorally-settled U.S. Presidential race and the high stakes involved when the secrets of some players are uncovered while those of others lay untouched and subject to speculation, one might look back on an earlier time when the intrigues of international espionage were a bit less…electronic. Opening 26 years ago yesterday, the rigorously moody and adult screen adaptation of John le Carré’s The Russia House (1990) made the global stakes devastatingly personal as well as movingly romantic and, within the bounds of spycraft, honorable. It helps that the vulnerable soul at the story’s center is a world-weary, shaggily charming and soulful Sean Connery, who solidified the screen image of suave, sure-footed, killing-licensed James Bond, but brings to the role of British publisher Barley Blair, whose brief acquaintance with a Russian scientist (Never Say Never Again Connery/Bond adversary Klaus Maria Brandauer) desirous of leaking his government’s military secrets triggers the plot, a gripping quality of disillusionment. In “without question one of his richest performances,” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “Connery shows the melancholy behind Barley's pickled charm, all the wasted years and unkept promises.” Blair is drafted – reluctantly on both sides – by British intelligence officials to help verify the information in the scientist’s manuscript, smuggled out of the country via the secretive activist Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), who will defrost Blair’s autumnal melancholy and spin the chillingly bureaucratic narrative in the direction of a passionate love story. As the encircling operatives of the CIA (Roy Scheider, John Mahoney and J.T. Walsh) and Britain (James Fox, Michael Kitchen, Martin Clunes, David Threlfall, Ken Russell and Ian McNeice) vie to unpack all the potentially disruptive consequences of the manuscript, Barley and Katya struggle to make their rejuvenating affair a promise that’s kept. Directed by Fred Schepisi (the still-active filmmaker of Plenty, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation who turns 77 on Monday) and shot in widescreen Panavision on historic and brooding Moscow and St. Petersburg locations by Ian Baker (Schepisi’s cinematographic collaborator on all the above), The Russia House, adapted by the formidable playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard, draws out its lead character’s tamped-down emotions and secrets with precision and feeling. And as Barley and Katya slowly awaken to their unexpected attraction, Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful, jazz-inflected score provides additional doses of mystery and warmth. The film’s tagline “Their love was as dangerous as the secrets they kept” may seem antiquated in this age of strategic information dumps to can influence public opinion, but in revisiting The Russia House on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, the words may prove strangely comforting, especially as Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love? drifts across the soundtrack.