Late in AMC's six-part spy thriller The Night Manager, Jonathan Pine, the dashing undercover operative played by Tom Hiddleston, slides into a casino bar and orders a vodka martini. Though he doesn't clarify whether he'd prefer it shaken or stirred, the drink order, the locale, and the well-tailored suit Jonathan wears like a second skin all can't help but evoke images of Hiddleston playing James Bond.
The Night Manager, which debuts tonight at 10 (airing in 75-minute timeslots because the episodes – which already aired on the BBC – are longer than U.S. basic cable standard), is from another, more reserved school of British espionage literature. Adapted by writer David Farr and director Susanne Bier from the 1993 novel by John le Carré, it moves at a leisurely pace, more interested in atmosphere than action, and making sure its plot – where former soldier and hotel manager Jonathan goes undercover in the organization of “worst man in the world”/ arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) – has so many layers and shifts in loyalty that it can be almost as difficult for the viewer to keep up as it is for Jonathan himself.
The results are a mixed bag, though, demonstrating both the appeal and complications of adapting any of le Carrés dense stories.
The settings (including Egypt, Spain, and the Alps) are nearly as beautiful to look at as Hiddleston and his statuesque co-star Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Roper's secretive girlfriend. And the supporting performances by Laurie, Tom Hollander (as Roper's drunken, foul-mouthed lieutenant), and Olivia Colman (as the dogged, very pregnant intelligence officer who points Jonathan in Roper's direction) are delightful. Laurie's Roper is so comfortable in his own power and casual cruelty, it's a wonder he hasn't played more pure villains over the years, and Hollander and Colman are both enjoying themselves enormously even within the deadly serious context.
But where Hiddleston absolutely looks the part, Jonathan's inherent reserve and chameleon quality – “You have many different voices,” a woman tells him in the first episode – don't serve the leading man well overall, particularly given the difficulty he has generating sparks with Debicki once the story turns into a love triangle. Roper and his entourage are off-screen for large chunks of the first two episodes, making the premiere (which establishes why Jonathan is so invested in taking out Roper) drag, while the second chapter (explaining how he embeds himself in Roper's organization) feels particularly convoluted while we wait for the bad guys to return.
Even in the later episodes, the story never entirely comes together, but it's so much fun watching the supporting cast that coherence almost seems besides the point.
Which, come to think of it, is a hallmark of the James Bond films as well. And 007 is outgoing enough that Hiddleston might be a better match for that world than he ultimately turns out to be for this one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org