Sunday, June 14, 2020

Neglected Gem: The Russia House (1990)

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (1990).

When Australian director Fred Schepisi’s 2001 film Last Orders came out, the best film of that year (yes, even better than the first installment of The Lord of the Rings), I read with astonishment a critic’s description of Schepisi as a “good, second-tier director.” The director of Barbarosa (1982), Roxanne (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Lost Orders a second-tier director? What the hell does a guy have to do to move into the first tier?

It’s true that Schepisi isn’t a personality in the way that, say, Scorsese and Spielberg are, and you don’t get the feeling that he’s opening up his guts in each of his movies – he’s not a “personal” filmmaker. Most of his films are literary adaptations – he’s translating someone else’s sensibility to the screen. He’s also taken over the occasional studio production and all the attendant competing sensibilities, with both success (Iceman, 1984) and failure (Mr. Baseball, 1992; I.Q., 1994). But his best movies contain intelligence, wit, grace, beauty, and an astonishing understanding of the human psyche in all its terrible beauty. In his second film, the 1978 adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, when the title character, a half-white, half-Aboriginal tenant farmer, rises up and massacres the white people who’ve failed him, there’s a pause when he is about to put an axe through the face of a woman who’s been “kind” to him. (As Thornton Wilder wrote, “Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust.”) He hesitates for a moment that seems like an eternity. And in that moment you understand all of Jimmie’s rage, all the degradations he’s suffered playing by the rules of whiteness, and his understanding that despite his efforts, he will always be seen as less than human by white society. You also understand in that moment what it would take to put an axe through someone’s face, to make the decision to do such a thing. Schepisi, a filmmaker of incomparable taste, doesn’t show the deed itself – he doesn’t need to: we’ve seen and felt a horror far deeper. You may not come away from a Schepisi movie knowing more about the filmmaker, but you absolutely come away knowing more about humanity.

Most of Schepisi’s movies, with the exception of Roxanne (a huge hit), and A Cry in the Dark (a masterful movie unfortunately mostly remembered for the line “A dingo ate my baby”) could be considered neglected gems. He’s never really gotten his due as a filmmaker. But his 1990 adaptation of the John le Carré spy novel, The Russia House, seems especially overlooked, despite its big-name stars and the generally respectful reviews it received upon release.

Acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, and he and Schepisi constructed the movie as a puzzle, especially at its beginning and end. Short scenes and bits of dialogue are shown without context and repeated, often several times, until the context is fully revealed. Decisions made by the characters make little sense at first – things they say don’t quite add up – but when all the pieces are in place, the effect is dazzling.

The Russia House is set in the period of glasnost and perestroika. The Soviets are still in charge, but things are loosening up, shifting, and no one really knows what the next move is. At a British audiobook fair in Moscow, a woman, Katya Orlova, clutching a manila envelope – a manuscript of some kind – comes upon an empty stall. Puzzled, she asks a neighboring exhibitor, Nicky Landau (Nicholas Woodson), if he knows where the man she expected to find, British publisher Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair, is. Because the woman is portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, one of the most radiantly beautiful and exquisitely talented actresses ever to grace the American movie screen, Woodson’s oleaginous publisher falls all over himself offering aid and hoping to get a date. Katya, learning that Scott Blair has not come to the expo, hands the manuscript over, asking Landau to give it to Barley, stressing the importance of the work to the world. The manuscript turns out to be full of secrets about the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and instead of being delivered to Barley, it ends up with British Intelligence, who promptly scoop up Barley near his apartment in Lisbon for questioning. Barley is played with world-weary magnificence by Sean Connery, in the middle of what would turn out to be his post-Bond renaissance as an actor. (Three years earlier, he had won the Oscar for his work in The Untouchables.)

Director Fred Schepisi on the set of The Russia House (1990).

Barley is as puzzled as the spymasters, having never met or interacted with Katya before, and having no idea why she was seeking him as the emissary for the documents. Under the questioning of a group of British Intelligence agents and analysts, led by a man known to us as Ned (James Fox, in an elegant, intuitive, and understated performance), Barley remembers that once he was invited to a Russian writers’ village  – “They value their writers there: the ones who behave get their own dacha” – and after a drunken afternoon where he spewed half-believed profundities about liberty and heroism, the crowd visited Boris Pasternak’s grave, where – as we see in a flashback – Barley was approached by a man named Dante (the great Klaus Maria Brandauer, who had worked with Connery previously on the Bond reboot Never Say Never Again). Dante quotes Barley’s lines back to him in earnest: “If there is to be hope we must all betray our country,” and “Nowadays you have to think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” He secures an irritated promise from Barley that if he ever dares to “think like a hero,” Barley will “act like a merely decent human being.”

The group of agents questioning Barley, a motley, comical crew that includes director Ken Russell as a foppish, eccentric analyst, are contrasted with the blustering Americans who include Roy Scheider as a bombastic CIA officer and J.T. Walsh as a humorless general. They take more convincing than the Brits that Dante is the real thing, but once in, they’re far more gung-ho. Barley is recruited to meet up with Katya and determine who Dante is and whether his intel is credible. He gets a crash course in spycraft from Ned, and is sent with several support staff and handlers to Moscow. He discovers that Katya, a divorcee with two children, along with being beautiful, is also guarded and suspicious, a cynic with a quick wit who nevertheless dares to hope for a better world. He is, of course, smitten. As he gets deeper into the intrigue among the three countries involved, the peril to both him and Katya increases, and eventually Barley has to decide where and with whom his loyalties lie.

The Russia House was one of the first American movies allowed to film in Russia, and the scenes in Moscow and Leningrad, as it was known then, are gorgeous and expansive. The outdoor scenes are filmed under cloudy skies or at twilight. (The golden hour has never looked so golden.) The light is diffuse. Schepisi’s usual collaborator, cinematographer Ian Baker, gives us one magnificent vista after another, Lisbon, Russia, London, and an interlude at a safe house on a lakeshore near Vancouver. Schepisi and Gordon keep the camera in almost constant motion, dollying in, panning left and right. Like the editing (by Peter Honess, whose work here is exceptional), the camera keeps us off-balance, unsettled. Every shot, every flashback, every repetition, no matter how mysterious, becomes necessary, giving us just enough information to leave us wanting more, until we finally know it all. Even the interior décor contains echoes of previous scenes. In the room where Barley is first interrogated, long red curtains frame the breathtaking view of Lisbon’s bay. Later, in Katya’s kitchen, where another confession is made, her window is framed by similar long red drapes, but the view is obscured by lace. It’s a visual promise that Katya will someday see what we saw earlier.

Stoppard’s script, unsurprisingly, is highly literate, his wit providing elements of high comedy swirling among the romance. “I am a moral outcast,” Dante tells Barley. “Oh, it’s always nice to meet a writer” is the response. Walsh’s general accuses Barley of being the son of a liberal, and Barley tells him, “My father hated liberals. He took the Communist line mostly.” A Russian literary agent, presenting a stack of manuscripts to Barley, quips, “Some of these writers haven’t yet been to jail, but I’m working on it.” And when Katya phones Barley after their first meeting, she asks in her broken, accented English, “Do I disturb you?” “Deeply,” Barley replies. Stoppard shows that he’s capable of more than just wit. “You do not need to remind me that man is not equal to his rhetoric,” Dante states after Barley’s demurrals that he’s the right man to bring Dante’s heroism to fruition.

Sean Connery and Klaus Maria Brandauer in The Russia House (1990).

Schepisi and his colleagues use all of this technique to support the work of their two stars, and they pay him back many times over. Connery’s Barley is an aging roué, a failure in both business and love. (In an early scene, he arrives at his Lisbon apartment to discover it’s been trashed by a former lover. “You’re a shit” has been scrawled on the mirror in lipstick. “She’s not wrong,” Barley tells his handlers.) But Barley is also courtly and full of Old World charm. It’s no surprise he feels a kinship with his Russian friends and colleagues, whose nationality is possessed of a buoyant humor even as their hopes and dreams have been broken over and over again. He distrusts governments, including his own, but believes in people. He also loves jazz. He plays the soprano sax (the music is dubbed by Branford Marsalis), and he uses that to connect with his Russian friends. (A large set-piece of the film takes place at a party he’s hosting, ostensibly for his publishing business, where he plays the sax at his friends’ shouted requests.) Even at his shaggiest and most unkempt, Barley, of course, still possesses the innate glamor, charisma, and sexiness of the actor portraying him. As he succumbs to Katya’s charms, his dissoluteness disappears: he’s pulling himself together. And when he has to make a choice, to be the person he professed to be to Dante, the person Katya thinks he is, he discovers it’s no choice at all – and maybe for the first time in his life, he does the truly right thing, the difficult thing, despite the danger to himself and others.

The current fad is to pretend we don’t respond to an actor’s good looks, that we don’t like our stars to be handsome and beautiful, but this is to deny one of the pleasures of the movies. When I said that Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the most radiantly beautiful actresses ever to grace the American screen, that was not hyperbole. Yet here’s what Time Out magazine had to say about her Katya: “Pfeiffer can act, but her assumption of a role for which her pouty glamour is inappropriate – a Russian office-worker seen rubbing shoulders in the bus queues – is a jarring note.” Of course, they had no objection to Connery’s good looks. Pfeiffer has long suffered from the preposterous fault of being too good-looking, as if that was somehow a detriment to her skill as an actor. Great actors use everything they have when they act—their life experiences, their craft, their talent, and yes, their physical appearance. Pfeiffer’s performance is extraordinary, and it came at a time when she was having one screen triumph after another. (In chronological order: Married to the Mob, Tequila Sunrise, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Russia House, Frankie and Johnny, Batman Returns – where her Catwoman is one of the great comic-book turns – and Love Field.)

In The Russia House, she uses her looks in a way she would expand on in Frankie and Johnny, as something that has damaged her in the past, making her guarded and suspicious. When Barley first meets her, she asks how he recognized her. Because he can’t tell her he saw her in surveillance photos, he lies, “Nicky said you were Russia’s answer to the Venus de Milo.” She scoffs, and in her pitch-perfect Russian accent dismisses the whole notion. She’s luminous, but there’s also a darkness around her eyes that speaks of the toll of life as a beautiful woman in the Soviet Union. She’s watchful and wary, and many of her initial words to Barley are statements of negation: “It is not possible,” “It is not relevant,” “It is not convenient.” (A handler explains to Barley that in Russian, the same word means both “proper” and “convenient.”) She can be both blunt and witty. After describing Dante’s mathematical prowess to Barley, Barley responds with levity, “When I went to school, they were the people I couldn’t stand.” “Naturally,” she says, “if you were not so talented, you’d be jealous.” Earlier, having persuaded Barley to accompany her to a store where there’s a rare shipment of shoes, she opines, “Complaining is our new human right. Glasnost gives everyone the right to complain and accuse but it doesn’t make more shoes.”

There are brief flashbacks to when she was a teenager in love with Dante, and Pfeiffer’s face in these scenes is absent its guardedness, more open, more trusting. Her eyes don’t yet have the heavy-lidded quality of the adult Katya. As the movie progresses, as she learns to trust Barley, the smile she’s forced to adopt at the beginning as subterfuge becomes genuine, and the light in her eyes increases. When Barley makes the decision to save her and her family, we know that it’s really a choice to save himself. Pfeiffer’s Katya has left him no other choice. In her penultimate scene, Katya attends a fete Barley is hosting for his Russian friends in Moscow. She enters in a stunning grey dress. (The wonderful costumes are by Ruth Myers.) Earlier, Dante, commenting that Barley is wearing grey, remarks, “Grey men ruined my beautiful profession.” But it’s a beautiful woman in grey who will redeem both him and Barley.

The Russia House may be the most swooningly romantic spy movie ever made. (Jerry Goldsmith’s jazz-inflected score, utilizing traditional Russian instruments as well as Marsalis’s saxophone, adds a great deal to both the romance and the intrigue.) At the end of the film’s credits, Schepisi shows us the final scene yet again. This time, there are no tricks to the repetition, no alternate views, no new contexts. We can believe what we see. It’s a deeply satisfying ending to a deeply satisfying movie.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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