In “The Russia House,” based on the 1988 John le Carre novel, Sean Connery plays a London publisher who is coerced into becoming a spy. Connery’s Barley Blair isn’t your usual stuffy bookish type; he’s boozy and blustery and he likes to tootle on his saxophone. He may be a malcontent but he’s a startlingly exuberant malcontent. As a newly minted spook, Barley doesn’t sport the shifty-eyed anonymity common to his tribe. The spy game isn’t a self-effacing experience for him; on the contrary, it turns out to be self- enhancing .
Most spy movies, including many of the best ones, are slinky, dark-toned affairs. Nothing is what it seems; no one is who they are supposed to be. Paranoia is integral to the spy genre but, in the glasnost era, the genre has rapidly become unmoored. This unmooring was the subtext of Le Carre’s novel and it’s true to an even greater degree of the movie.
Fred Schepisi, who directed from a densely witty script by Tom Stoppard, understands what’s at stake. Without an active Cold War to fight anymore, the British and American spies and their Soviet counterparts are engaged in kind of formal shadow play. (The spies are impeccably played by, among others, James Fox, Roy Scheider, Michael Kitchen, John Mahoney and Ken Russell, who turns out to be as wigged-out an actor as he is a director.) They justify their existence by acting out the same old tired covert scenarios; their missions into “enemy” territory have the flavor of grand-scale pranks.
In “The Russia House” (at selected theaters), Barley, via a Moscow book publisher named Katya (a radiant Michelle Pfeiffer), is sent a top-secret manuscript by a dissident physicist, code name Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer, in a splendid cameo), which purports to expose Russia’s extensive military weaknesses. Dante’s hope, if he is to be believed, is that Barley will publish the text and thereby persuade the West that a nuclear build-up is irrelevant. He wants to clear the way for peace.
But when the manuscript is intercepted by the British secret service, Barley is coaxed into returning to Russia to reconnect with Dante, whom he innocently met earlier as a guest at a Soviet Writers’ Union retreat, in order to verify Dante’s veracity. With the ravishing Katya as intermediary, Barley finds himself in a dual role: He’s both spy and romancer, often at the same time.
The early scenes in which Barley finagles information from Katya while trying to seduce her carry a comic charge. Barley, wired for sound, is being monitored; his intimacies are fodder for the spymasters’ dossier. But he’s so exhilarated by his awakening passion that he doesn’t really mind being bugged. The joke here is that Barley’s undercover operation brings out the exhibitionist in him; he relishes the notion that his ardor is being broadcast, mulled over, dissected.
Barley also turns out to be a first-rate spy. We can see how practicing espionage has coalesced his disparate temperaments. Barley seemed miscast as a book publisher--he’s too out-sized and physical and unruminative. He’s a publisher with the soul of an artist. It is only as a spy that he comes into his own, because it confirms his own wild-eyed romantic notions of himself. And, set loose in Moscow and Leningrad, Barley feels like he’s adrift in a minaret-studded, fairy-tale dreamscape.
So do we. “The Russia House” is the first American non-co-production to be shot mostly in the Soviet Union and Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker provide one intoxicating vista after another; they’re swooning right along with Barley. It’s unashamedly an outsiders’ view--we don’t see much misery--but it does justice to our sense of the rejuvenation in Russia.
The stranger-in-a-strange land atmosphere isn’t spooky, it’s entrancing. The freeing up of Russian society is paralleled by the freeing up of Barley and Katya’s passion; they are metaphors for each other. Schepisi may have made the first truly and intelligently uplifting spy movie. His style here is magisterial yet playful: The melancholy grandeur of Russia, on view at last for the whole world to see, has turned him into an eye-popping enthusiast. Barley is the film’s hero because ultimately he allows his ecstasy for Russia, for Katya, to overpower his spymaking scruples. He’s been trained so well that he turns his handlers’ tactics inside out, and they can’t even hate him for it. He’s too vitally alive for that.
There’s an almost total absence in “The Russia House” of gunplay and chase scenes and torrid sex and all the other accouterments of the thriller. (The R rating is for occasional violence and strong language.) It’s not that Schepisi can’t do this stuff; he’s just interested in a different set of machinations. We’ve become so jangled by the punch-and-grab of conventional thrillers that I fear “The Russia House,” with its kicky combination of slow, tricky plotting and fervent emotionalism, may be left in the lurch this season. Watching this film about conspirators requires an almost conspiratorial participation on the part of its audience; we’re made to understand that our patience and our attentions will pay off. And they do in ways that are almost unique to the genre.
“The Russia House” has an unusually soulful core. Most spy movies are a male preserve, but Michelle Pfeiffer brings such lyrical tenderness to her role--she looks like a sorrowing Chekhov heroine--that Barley’s love for her has an almost mystical inevitability. She’s the emblem of all that’s worth saving in this spy-infested world. It’s a world in which love is the true subversion.
‘The Russia House’
Sean Connery Barley
Michelle Pfeiffer Katya
Klaus Maria Brandauer Dante
Roy Scheider Russell
A Pathe Entertainment presentation released by MGM/UA. Director Fred Schepisi. Producer Paul Maslansky. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard based on the John le Carre novel. Cinematographer Ian Baker. Editor Peter Honess. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Richard Macdonald. Set decorator Simon Wakefield. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (occasional violence, strong language).