SEAN CONNERY, like Anthony Quinn, takes a role like a vitamin pill, downs it, then goes about his bighearted business of making the part his idiosyncratic own. British secret agents, intergalactic voyagers, Robin Hoods, Greek warriors, Chicago Irish cops, monks of the Middle Ages or Lithuanian submarine skippers -- in Connery's hands they all become twinkly-eyed, witty salts of the earth with booming Scottish brogues. They win, not through intimidation or gunplay, but by magnanimous gesture, by bushy-eyebrowed force of personality.
In "The Russia House," an extremely pleasant but lightweight espionage drama set in the glasnost age, Connery brings that charisma to bear and, with co-star Michelle Pfeiffer's help, makes the movie work. He plays -- big surprise -- a rugged individualist, a British publisher on the personal skids who finds himself caught in an undercover affair involving MI5, the CIA, Soviet scientist Klaus Maria Brandauer and Russian mystery woman Pfeiffer.
The West's secret services get wind of a personal letter written by Pfeiffer and smuggled to Connery from the Soviet Union. It not only speaks to Connery on familiar terms but implores him to publish Brandauer's manuscript, a significant document about the Soviet Union's strategic capability to produce nuclear war. Connery, who does not recall meeting Pfeiffer, agrees to play de facto secret agent, wear a wire and make Pfeiffer and Brandauer an offer. But when he sets eyes on Pfeiffer, things change.
Held up to any kind of scrutiny, screenwriter Tom Stoppard's adaptation of the John Le Carre novel is full of air. It avoids deep treatment of either the spy-versus-spy business or the inevitable love affair. Yet it combines just enough of both elements to satisfy. It has the requisite code names. It has the eyes-only codespeak. It has the usual round of heavy-duty surveillance (with cross-Atlantic friction between CIA man Roy Scheider and Brit agent James Fox). It also has the requisite witticisms:
"I'm a moral outcast," Brandauer tells Connery, at one point.
"Ah," replies Connery, "it's always nice to meet a writer."
The airiness in "Russia House" includes the notion that love (the movie kind, of course) conquers all. See the unnecessarily saccharin embellishment to the novel's more open-ended conclusion for details. But see also the enjoyable contributions to that gaseous factor from Pfeiffer. As Katya, a mother who risks her love to smuggle a document and falls for a Westerner in the process, her gestures are entirely believable, her accent (at least to one set of Western ears) is quietly perfect.
Russia, by the way, never looked better. Australian director Fred Schepisi and his regular director of photography Ian Baker shoot an abundance of scenes in a lovely, low-lying afternoon light, so that Soviet architecture and statuary is tinged with a certain perestroika warmth. It's entirely in keeping with the romantic heat that's not only thawing East-West relations but frustrating those Cold War-era agents still spoiling for a tussle.
THE RUSSIA HOUSE (R) -- Area theaters.