Very often, movies can be too smart for their own good, but in "The Russia House," Fred Schepisi's exceptional film of the best-selling John le Carre espionage novel, intelligence is a stirring, scintillating virtue.
The novel, which has been elegantly adapted by Tom Stoppard, makes a labyrinth out of the geopolitical status quo. In this world nothing can be known absolutely; everything is relative, shrouded in layer upon layer of lies, manipulations and disinformation. But Schepisi navigates the maze expertly, cleanly laying out the action so that we're drawn inside the puzzle. The movie challenges us to keep everything straight, as the very best thrillers do, and in the process makes putting together all the pieces its own heady pleasure.
The events of the film turn on what could be a major leaking of secrets. A manuscript containing the Soviet military master plan falls into the hands of British intelligence. It could be "the pot of gold." Or it could be a shrewdly manufactured bundle of disinformation. The man who wrote it -- a renegade physicist calling himself Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) -- may be on the level, or he may be a KGB puppet trying to sucker the West into lowering its guard.
Whatever turns out to be true, the CIA doesn't like it. The agency also isn't crazy about the fact that the man who was originally meant to receive the document -- a broken-down, boozy publisher by the name of Barley Blair (Sean Connery) -- makes frequent trips to the Soviet Union and may be what he says he is, a man who loves the Russian people, or a misguided peacenik or worse. At first Barley has no idea what's going on. The courier -- an editor for a Soviet publishing firm named Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- was supposed to take the material to Barley, who had impressed Dante at a Soviet writers' conference. Instead she dropped it into the hands of a colleague, who passed it on to the British authorities.
Dante had wanted Barley to publish his manuscript, but of course the intelligence communities in England and America won't allow that. Before they can determine what to do with it, though, they must determine whether it's true. And so Barley -- protesting all the way -- is sent back to Russia to make contact with Katya and, if all goes well, with Dante himself.
Even with all these spider-webbed plot details to sort through, "The Russia House" is more character-centered than most spy thrillers. Much of the film's action, such as it is, takes the form of interrogations, and Schepisi has turned them into tense verbal chess matches. It helps, of course, that the actors play their pieces brilliantly. Connery's Barley is a malt-cured reprobate with hipster tendencies who's gone his own way without much in the way of responsibilities or, for that matter, achievements. Barley is a shambles, like his beloved Russia, but he's his very own shambles. When the spooks grill him, he knows he has nothing to lose and turns their questions back on them with hilarious panache.
This may be the most complex character Connery has ever played, and without question it's one of his richest performances. Connery shows the melancholy behind Barley's pickled charm, all the wasted years and unkept promises. Barley isn't used to being taken seriously or depended on. What draws him, at first, into spying for the West is the chance it gives him to do something decent for a change. After he meets Katya, though, he has a second motive.
Pfeiffer's Katya is the linchpin in the drama, the straight arrow whose moral authority anchors the events, and with a less gifted actress the character could be a humorless drone. What saves Pfeiffer is the shy girlishness that peeks out from behind Katya's brusque skepticism. Katya wants to be all business, a blank-faced pro, but she can't help but respond to Barley's wry gallantries.
The romance between Katya and Barley doesn't follow the usual path. Their scenes are interrogations too. But beneath the business agenda, a subterranean seduction is taking place. Their romance is the biggest secret of all -- even perhaps to them -- and the tension between them, as they work on two channels at once, keeping their true feelings closeted from each other, is intoxicating.
Pfeiffer gives us the whole woman. Her triumph goes beyond her facility with the Russian accent; other actresses could have done that. She's great at playing contradictions, at being tough yet yielding, cloaked yet open, direct yet oblique. What's she's playing, we suspect, is the great Russian game of hide-and-seek. But Pfeiffer gives it a personal dimension. Katya holds herself in check, but her wariness, one senses, is as much personal as it is cultural -- the result, perhaps, of her own secret wounds. It's one of the year's most full-blooded performances.
Surrounding the leads is a gang of first-rate supporting performers. As Dante, Brandauer has a touch of the poet about him. Both James Fox as Barley's British operator, and Roy Scheider as his American counterpart, are superb. But it's the director Ken Russell, as a member of the British team, who threatens to steal the show with his fey exuberance.
Added to this, "The Russia House" has visual pleasures far beyond those of most thrillers. Some of this can be attributed to the heroic shots of Moscow and Leningrad (the film is the first American production to be shot inside the Soviet Union), but Schepisi and his longtime cinematographer, Ian Baker, also find imaginative ways to shoot even the most mundane settings.
Making a picture about the political situation in a country as much in flux as the Soviet Union can be disastrous, but the post-glasnost realities here seem plausible and up to the minute. "The Russia House" doesn't sweep you off your feet; it works more insidiously than that, flying in under your radar. If it is like any of its characters, it's like Katya. It's reserved, careful to declare itself but full of potent surprises. It's one of the year's best films.
The Russia House, at area theaters, is rated R for language.