What an unalloyed adult pleasure "The Russia House" is. In fact, Fred Schepisi's version of John le Carre's best seller may well be the greatest adult pleasure of the whole Christmas movie outlay -- crisply moving where "Havana" and "The Godfather, Part III" (see the review in Monday's News) seem to move at the tempo of a Panama canal barge, wildly literate script and direction in perfect harmony where "Bonfire of the Vanities" is like an undeclared two-hour war between the screenwriter and the director.
Le Carre's cloak-without-dagger intelligence drama takes place in an indefatigably adult world where things aren't black or white but rather a permanent shade of twilight gray. Instead of a world of thumbs up and thumbs down or yes or no, Le Carre is the champion of the adult's permanently hopeful but wised-up maybe. All his dramas take place along the trail of yes, but (yes, life is wonderful, but wouldn't it be better without earaches and earthquakes?).
What happens always happens in the land of regret and misgivings.
What happens in "The Russia House" is a complex, brilliantly layered drama of defection played out by boozy Barley Blair (Sean Connery), a jazz-loving publisher who likes to scour the Russian publishing houses and samizdat presses for easy scores, and a mysterious Russian (Klaus Maria Bradauer) who calls himself Dante. Their intermediary is an impossibly beautiful woman once involved with the Russian.
Tom Stoppard, the wittiest and greatest verbal gymnast among English-language playwrights, wrote it, and it is festooned with exchanges sparkling with dry wit, scintillating cynicism and the obscene flourishes peculiar to the hopelessly literate. Eloquence is its home key.
Barley is your basic old seedy literary drunk, coming apart at the seams and not looking for any thread, either. When the boys in British intelligence hunt him down in Lisbon, they find a fellow in a dirty jacket and a head full of words topped off by sparse, flyaway hair. When his soprano saxophone isn't handy, he'll serenade whoever is around with tissue paper and comb, phrased with Sidney Bechet's languid fervor (Branford Marsalis plays the saxophone in the film).
In his cups in a Russian suburban dacha, Barley says, "If there is to be hope, we must all betray our country. Nowadays you have to think like a hero just to act like a merely decent human being." Dante, the Russian, takes him seriously. When he introduces himself, he says, "I am a moral outcast."
"It's always nice to meet a writer," says Barley, not missing a beat. Later, when asked how he lives with himself, he replies: "I don't live with myself. In fact, I try to give myself a wider berth."
With such lines and poses, Connery has a field day.
It seems that even with glasnost and perestroika, no one can get shoes, and the secret police take a dim view of the selling of state secrets.
Breaking through Barley's derelict bonhomie is the Russian go-between, played by the astonishingly beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. Not only does Pfeiffer have the enveloping face of her generation, she is an actress every bit as enthralling as she is beautiful.
Eventually, Barley surrenders. "You are my only country now," he says. Applications for citizenship are unavailable.
The film was shot in the Soviet Union, and the seldom-seen sights in Moscow and Leningrad are breathtaking. The superb supporting cast includes Edward Fox, John Mahoney, and Roy Scheider as an American CIA man who describes himself as hopelessly "glasnostic."
The Russia House
Rating * * * *
Fred Schepisi's version of le Carre best seller, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Rated R, at the Holiday and Boulevard Mall theaters.