One of the funniest and most existential adaptations of John Le Carre, The Russia House may also be the most spectacular and sublime. It’s also closer in time to its source than any other Le Carre adaptation, arriving only one year after the novel upon which it is based. So close is it to the release of the novel, in fact, that there’s more pressure upon it to distinguish itself in some way, which is perhaps why Tom Stoppard was called upon to write the screenplay, an inspired choice that provides just the right amount of distance from Le Carre’s original vision while remaining true to it at the same time. At first glance, Le Carre and Stoppard might seem to be worlds apart, aesthetically, and yet there’s something about Le Carre’s cloistered Englishness that looks very similar to Stoppard in its homosocial vernacular when taken to its logical conclusion as it is here. By the same token, Stoppard’s off-kilter Englishness can sometimes feel a bit naff, or a bit glib, and yet pairing it with Le Carre perfectly draws out its more paranoid and anxious undertones, making for what has to be Stoppard’s best screenplay (and a much more inspired effort than his Golden Lion winning version of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, released the same year).
It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is one of Le Carre’s more complicated and experimental narrative structures, to the point where it almost spoils to film to provide even a cursory overview. Suffice to say that we start with the delivery of a manuscript at an International Audio Book Fair – the first International Audio Book Fair – in Moscow to a Soviet operative named Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), before cutting abruptly back to an MI5 safe house in Lisbon, where Batholomew “Barley” Blair (Sean Connery), a book dealer, is taken in and interrogated by a handful of chummy English intelligence operatives after it transpires that the manuscript has been addressed to him. From there, Barley finds himself caught in the web of an espionage narrative that forces him to confront his own past along with his political affiliations in the present, as he travels to the Soviet Union under the protection of MI5 in order to make contact with Katya and to deduce the significance of the manuscript (if he doesn’t already know what it means in the first place). As might be expected, a May-December romance blooms between Barley and Katya, and yet it is as awry and uneasy as any of Le Carre’s spy romances, even if it looks considerably more idyllic at first glance.
As linear as that might sound, Stoppard and Schepisi mostly opt for fractured, splintered, elliptical shards of narrative that syncopate words and images, and dissociate Barley’s testimony from the act of reciting it. It’s no coincidence that the film opens with the first International Audio Book Fair, or that audio books had just recently become a major industry, since Schepisi seems to be prescient that this new medium embodies the particular challenge of filming an adaptation so hot on the heels of the novel that spawned it. With barely twelve months between publication and cinematic release, and relatively little time for the import of Le Carre’s words to percolate into the general consciousness, it was always possible that the film would feel as slavishly indebted to the novel as the Penguin Audio Classics that we see in the opening scene are indebted to the Penguin Classics that spawned them in turn, right down to the replication of the cover designs on the front of the cassettes. Yet the strange way in which audio books free up the eye to roam also has a cinematic potential, if handled the right way, and to his credit Schepisi makes good on that promise, offering up the most visually ingenious adaptation of Le Carre that has yet been released, and a strange and wonderful expansion of his cloistered universe.
Key to that process, of course, is Stoppard’s influence, which is particularly clear in the safe room in Lisbon, along with all the scenes that involve MI5. It’s quite a bold move to open the film with this scene, since it seems to throw all traditional espionage cues out the window in the name of a jazzy, wry, off-kilter chumminess, and a mildly alternative universe that Barley can’t quite comprehend but which isn’t really all that different from everyday life either. At times, Barley himself seems almost a little too expansive, languorous and colloquial for this space, and yet the intelligence officers not only seem unphased by that conversational license but actually encourage it, as if the Cold War were ultimately being fought for the sake of an idiomatic English lexicon rather than any more tangible political or military goal. It’s an intensified, vernacular normality that Stoppard often uses to draw out the existential edges of his stages and spaces, a heightened Englishness that almost inevitably presents itself as minor and marginal, but especially here, where nearly all the action takes place in Lisbon and the Soviet Union (or in abstracted diplomatic spaces), deracinating every English accent until it feels as spectral and hallucinatory as a recording unearthed from an ancient time capsule. No surprise, then, that the few scenes set in England feel utterly foreign, not least because they consist of MI5 training Barley to see all the familiar sights as a KGB operative might: “How many surfaces do you see in this room?”
There is, however, an even more dramatic sense in which The Russia House frees up the eye to roam, since this was only the second mainstream American film to be shot in the Soviet Union since its inception in 1922. In some ways, though, it’s the first, since the only predecessor – Walter Hill’s Red Heat, released in 1988 – was largely confined to Red Square, with the majority of the “Soviet” scenes actually taking place in Hungary. By contrast, The Russia House utterly immerses itself in the Soviet Union, to the point where the dialogue almost feels like an afterthought, a mere vocal accompaniment to one increasingly incredible vista after another. Before we even arrive in the USSR, Schepisi prepares us for this with a luminous, pellucid and quite spectacular model of space that is infinitely reticulated and regressive. On the one hand, every space contains another smaller space, a characteristic trope of Le Carre’s novels, in which the sequestered safe spaces at the heart of MI5 tend to structure the spatial schemes of his narratives as a whole. Yet, conversely, ever space also gives out onto another, more expansive space, with massive windows and balconies introducing a breathless panoramic quality to even the most chambered scenes.
Once we arrive in Moscow those windows are even more omnipresent, as Schepisi provides the West with one of its first independent visions of the Soviet Union in over half a century (and, for many viewers, in their entire lifetime). Less a vision than an enactment of glasnost, even the most static compositions seem to bear witness to a world that is in the midst of changing, or a world that has already changed by virtue of the sheer presence of the camera within it. For all the narrative machinations, then, many of the best scenes simply absorb the characters back into these vistas, as if anxious to capture all the things about the USSR the West will never see or understand, even as they are starting to evaporate and become a matter of history. From the incredible scenes in the depths of the Moscow Metro to the lavish fixtures at the iconic Hotel National Restaurant, the camera quickly moves beyond typical tourist vistas to seek out spaces that could never have been glimpsed from within the United States before this point in time. In particular, Schepisi has a real taste for breathtaking panoramas shot from private rooms and apartments, as if to take all the claustrophobic imagery commonly associated with the USSR in the Western consciousness and expand it into something much grander, thereby astonishing the audience with how much of the country remains intact, or has even been enhanced, under Communist rule.
In the single most beautiful sequence, Schepisi distills all this into the approach to Leningrad, evincing a classical Soviet’s director’s eye for urban infrastructure as we move from the train, to the ferry, to the car and, finally, to a dazzling sequence in which Barley strolls the city on foot, encouraging the camera to also go slightly off-script and follow him as he reinvents the former St. Petersburg as a flaneur’s paradise. As Schepisi fixates on every little flourish of Soviet daily life he can find, this sequence balloons out into a gorgeous testament to the endurance of the USSR, the endurance of Russia within the USSR and, finally, the endurance of St. Petersburg within Leningrad, as Barley reflects that “here, the Revolution started. Imagine this place on that day.” Indeed, so sublime is the sheer presence of American cameras within Leningrad that the entire passage of the last century suddenly feels palpable, creating a retrofuturist ambience and atmosphere in which the very idea and execution of glasnost seems to split the difference between past and future: “My parents are old glasnostics from way back. My children will be brought up glasnostic.”
In the process, the spectacle of the USSR renders space so otherworldly in itself that even the few scenes that take place outside its borders – such as a meeting at a safe house in British Columbia – seem to subscribe to the visual logic of the Soviet Union more than the Soviet Union itself. Back in the USSR, Schepisi’s camera has also started to gravitate to positions and perspectives that would seem otherworldly even to Soviets who experience them on a daily basis, with one especially exotic pan taking us straight out the window of Barley’s tenth-floor room of the Hotel Ukraine, where we hover outside the statue of the Founders of Kiev in a shot that would be challenging even to a contemporary drone camera. No wonder, then, that Schepisi chooses to open with grainy, blotty footage of Red Square – it could almost be an outtake from Red Heat – since it only serves to remind the audience how little they had before the film allows them to actually step foot inside the Soviet Union.
By the end, The Russia House has affirmed glasnost both as a revelation of how much Russia has endured throughout the Soviet Union, but also how much both Russia and the USSR have endured throughout the Western world, now that Westerners can finally immerse themselves in the Soviet Union on something resembling its own terms. In its infrastructural sublime, this vision of the USSR almost reminded me of some of Andrei Tarkovsky’s depictions of the Eastern Bloc, with the obvious difference that The Russia House is much more ebullient about the aesthetic power of the Soviet Union, to the point where it barely feels like the enemy any more, but simply a different kind of ally, an ally whose differences are less emphatic than perhaps initially appeared. At the very least, everything outside the Soviet Union now seems to be taking place in a notional dream space, since one of the great achievements of The Russia House is to present a vision of the world from the perspective of the USSR, and from the heartland of Communism, a vision in which it is now the weird satellites of capitalism that seem like historical curios or oddities.
In that sense, Barley feels a bit like the first genuinely glasnostic citizen, to the point where it becomes indiscernible – and almost irrelevant – whether he has defected to the enemy or “remained” Western. No doubt, that gesture could be understood as a dilution of Soviet ideology or, worse still, a commodification of Soviet ideology into just another state of mind to be colonised and co-opted by American capitalism. Yet the displaced, decentred atmosphere also prevents the Soviet Union ever settling into a sufficiently stable spectacle to be co-opted, just as Barley’s affiliation with it is too tensile and complicated to ever feel like straightforward appropriation. Add to that the fractured, opaque narrative structure and this doesn’t really feel like glasnost as mere commodification, but instead a more emergent engagement with the Soviet Union that nevertheless seems to have been enough for most American critics to be repelled by it, despite its aesthetic ambit and ambition, which has only grown more powerful and pregnant in the thirty years since its first release.