Is there an actor alive with the wit, the bravado, and — yes — the daring of Sean Connery? Midway through The Russia House, there’s an astonishing scene in which his character, Barley, a British book publisher who has been coerced into spying for British intelligence, tells Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Russian woman he has been trying to pump for information, that he is passionately in love with her. The confession couldn’t come at a more inopportune time; it could screw up the entire assignment. Yet Barley, who is past caring about the machinations of bureaucratic, paranoid governments, can’t help himself.
Advancing slowly into the kitchen, he gazes at Katya and tells her that he feels something for her he has never felt for anybody — a selfless, mature love. We know Connery can play smiling macho, but here he captures the slightly weak-in-the-knees ardor of an ordinary, even desperate fellow. The light in his eyes isn’t merely amorous; it expresses something like wonder. Barley can scarcely believe the feelings in his own heart, even as his words come pouring forth.
Barley and Katya have become linked through the mysterious figure of Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a Russian physicist who has written a devastating manuscript. His work reveals that the Soviet strategic nuclear-missile force is, in fact, a disaster, a military shield that works in theory only. Dante first decided to smuggle his manuscript to Barley after meeting him at a Russian writers’ retreat. When the manuscript falls into the hands of British intelligence, both the British and their American comrades, the CIA, couldn’t be happier. There’s just one catch: Since Dante is a pen name, how can they know whether or not his underground research is valid? It could be an elaborate hoax — something planted by the Soviet government. Barley is recruited to go to Moscow, ferret out Dante’s true identity, and get him to cooperate with the British and American authorities. He does this by wearing a concealed tape recorder and hanging out with Katya, the go-between who passed along the manuscript in the first place.
Adapted from John le Carré’s 1989 best-seller, The Russia House is a sharp, funny, and steadily engrossing thriller. The plot lacks the spectacular twistiness of other Le Carré novels. At times, you may feel you’re one step ahead of the action. Yet Le Carré and his adaptors — screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Fred Schepisi — are more sly than you think. In The Russia House, they’re not even attempting to up the ante on the spy genre’s head-spinning complexity. Part of what Le Carré is saying is that, in the glasnost era, the very twists and turns that once seemed so seductive now carry a tinge of absurdist comedy. At the same time, he and the moviemakers want to get closer to the human side of the story. The Russia House may have a fairly prosaic narrative, yet rarely has there been a spy movie as full-bodied as this one.
Schepisi, as always, works with exhilarating craft and intelligence. He has great fun cutting back and forth between the goings-on in Moscow and the frettings of the British and American intelligence higher-ups, who are monitoring everything with their precious tape recorders. These spook-meisters include Roy Scheider, the terrifically supercilious James Fox, and even film director Ken Russell, who’s like an impish, white-haired goblin.
It’s the lead actors who give the movie its surprisingly emotional texture. Connery is masterly as the boozing, disheveled, sentimental Barley — a hipster gone to seed — and he and Pfeiffer have a touching chemistry. You can easily imagine these two sharing a life after the credits roll. Brandauer plays the wounded Dante with an undercurrent of flip cynicism that saves the character from nobility. And Pfeiffer, accent flawlessly in place, creates an impassioned portrait of a contemporary Russian disgusted with the pace of progress. ”Complaining is our new human right,” says Katya, ”but it doesn’t make more shoes.” Nestled within this avid thriller, Pfeiffer’s vibrance and beauty become a testament to the human splendor waiting to bloom inside the new Russia. A-