Meet the new Hugh Laurie: the World’s Most Evil Man, living large in a Mallorca palace with an entourage of guards, servants and an oft-naked blonde consort. By day, Laurie’s Richard Roper is a respectable tycoon, one of those jet-setting wheeler-and-dealer types who give philanthropic speeches about saving the refugees. By night, he presides over a black-market gunrunning empire, or as he puts it with his roguish grin, “We do a little swashbuckling now and then.”
Hugh Laurie makes the perfect gentleman villain on The Night Manager, the excellent AMC six-part miniseries updating John Le Carre’s 1993 spy novel. After his stint on Veep as Julia Louis Dreyfus’ slimeball running mate, Laurie has now conquered the bad-guy phase of his brilliant career. He’s part Bond nemesis, part the Most Interesting Man in the World, and he waltzes away with The Night Manager, making it the model of how to modernize the old-school spy thriller.
Tom Hiddleston — Loki from The Avengers — plays Jonathan Pine, the British spy who’s out to bring Laurie down, going deep cover in his criminal empire. He’s a British soldier who’s left the Iraq war zones behind to adopt a new identity as the night manager at a posh Cairo hotel. He’s looking to bury his violent past and live a very English life of rules and routine — until Cairo goes up in flames, in the midst of the Arab Spring. He tries to keep his guests pampered, drunk and clueless despite the riots in the streets outside. A little burning and shooting doesn’t faze this man; after walking through explosions on his way to the hotel, he shrugs, “I’ve seen worse.” However, when one of his guests turns out to be a seductive lady spy, that does weaken him in the knees a bit, especially since she can see right through his disguise. “I want one of your many selves to sleep with me tonight,” she purrs. “You can choose which one.”
She not only lures him into bed, she gets him involved in espionage, smuggling documents and warning him against another one of his glam hotel guests — Roper, or as she calls him, “the worst man in the world.” And that’s when Hiddleston starts down the road to his dangerous mission—not just to infiltrate Roper’s world, but to become part of it. As he learns from his wonderfully dowdy boss, the great Olivia Colman from Peep Show, he’s got to turn into a criminal himself. “There is half a psychopath lurking in there, Jonathan. I want you to find him and stick with him. Once you get down to Devon, you are the world’s second-worst man, the first place already taken.” To really get next to Roper, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As she says, “I want you to scare the shit out of everyone and that includes me.”
John Le Carre’s complex thrillers were always grittier and more realistic than any James Bond fantasy: more workaday, more drearily bureaucratic, more English. But The Night Manager is glitzed and sexed and violenced up and all the better for it. Elizabeth Debicki is Roper’s elegant but damaged girlfriend — she’s barely checked into the hotel before she’s flirting with Hiddleston in her own subtle way, which means taking a bath with the door open, lathering up her legs and demanding more champagne. Women in The Night Manager have a tough time keeping their clothes on around Hiddleston — they’re doing well if they can get through an entire scene fully dressed, while he keeps giving that same hilarious James Bond “oh, all right, if you insist” grimace.
But this lady might mean trouble for him, especially after he makes his way into Roper’s inner circle, where Hugh Laurie pours champagne, snuggles his dogs, and gives fabulous speeches about the World’s Worst Man way of life. “Me, I’m a free man,” he tells Pine by the beach. “Free to think, free to work, free to climb a mountain or lie in bed all day eating peppermint creams without any bugger telling me how.” But as he says, that’s just the free part — being a man is harder. “Becoming a man is realizing that it’s all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness — that’s freedom.” The main reason The Night Manager is such a smashing success is that Laurie brings that rottenness to life.