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on October 11, 2002
The cold war defined the first 27 years of my professional life as an aerospace engineer. I left that profession with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and visited Moscow not long afterward. This story is a sort of elegy for the USSR, and was to some degree prescient. Like "Barley", I too am fond of Russians and things Russian, and I greatly enjoyed the scenery of Moscow and Leningrad. Viewing it brings back vivid memories of my visit there, the colleagues I met, and the persistent sense I had of one tremendous chapter of history having just closed, and the next but dimly apprehended.
I have assembled a kind of personal "Cold War Archive", and this has an honored place in it along with "Smiley's People", & etc. It is a dandy story well told, not the usual "chase'm around and shoot'm up" action spy "thriller" of which we are all so tired. I give this four stars only because I believe the 5 star award in this category has been permanently retired with "Smiley's People".
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on June 30, 2016
This is one of my favourite movies, based on the great novel by John Le Carré. It takes place at the beginning of Perestroika. Sean Connery as Barley plays an English book publisher who travels frequently to Russia, mostly because he loves it. He encounters the beguiling Michelle Pfeiffer as Katya. A might be expected, they fall in love. This happens with a background of a wonderful plot with a terrific twist of an ending. The ethical dilemma at the heart of the movie is one to which I can easily relate. The movie musical theme is haunting: (...). The cinematography captures equally well the grittiness of Moscow and the grandeur of St. Petersburg.
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on January 9, 2012
This is a beautiful film. The actors are excellent, and the dialogue and plot could make it a predecessor of the so-called 'smart films' which are lately found to be trendy. It has a unique atmosphere, and very interesting musical score with Brandford Marsalis playing jazz saxophone (symbol of the 'free west' in this context, I would guess). The scenery is compelling, Tom Stoppard writes a script that has its own special flavour and does not get tired with repeated viewing. Altogether, this is one of my favourite romantic films! With no violence, and a happy ending too . . . !
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on July 8, 2000
Like the other movies originating from the unchallenged master of the intelligent spy thriller John LeCarre, this one is a really a sophisticated thriller exposing the hidden, complicated, and conflicted corners of an individual's human heart. "The Russia House" represented a formidable new challenge for LeCarre, so suddenly deprived of the spy-thriller heaven of the cold war he had built his career describing. But here he has mined fresh new tunnels of insight into the cunning, deceit, and betrayal that is the stuff of real-life espionage. At the same time, this movie also weaves a quite memorable love story in the spaces squeezed between the two sides.
Barley Blair (Sean Connery), the failing boozehound scion of a collapsing British publishing house with a love for everything Russian, happens by drunken though eloquent happenstance to inspire a famous Soviet scientist into attempting to sneak his manuscript detailing the real sorry state of Russian ICBM capabilities into the hands of the West in order to foster a recognition of the folly of the arms race and to end what he calls "the great lie". The scientist attempts to contact Blair, but through a series of mishaps rivaling the deeds of the keystone cops winds up landing the manuscript in the hands of the British Secret Service. So they soon want Barley to intercede with the Russian contact point (Michelle Pfeiffer) to find out who the author of the manuscript is and thus determine its authenticity. So Barley pursues the beautiful but conflicted contact, an idealistic angel of mercy who soon sparks Barley's love interest and paternal concern. The game is afoot.
The movie is gorgeously photographed on a number of locations throughout Russia, and the travelogue-like tour through Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Minsk is spellbinding. Likewise, the acting is top notch, with Roy Scheider, James Fox, and a whole welter of distinguished British actors lending presence and gravity to this intelligent thriller. As is usual, the plot takes off slowly but builds to a mind-boggling series of intertwining activities one has to pay attention to understand. Before long we recognize the familiar murderous games set into motion with deadly earnest by the Brits, the Americans, and the Russians, none of whom give a rattler's damn about Barley, the contact, or the scientist.
This is a stunning, suspenseful, and somewhat rueful tale of what unfolds when we discover that there is a real possibility that the so-called Soviet ICBM threat is a sham, that the missiles cannot escape their silos, that their ability to achieve trajectory or destroy targets with any accuracy is vastly over-rated. And as one can expect from LeCarre's shadowy and complex geopolitical world of espionage and power, there are no simple answers or easy foregone conclusions. This is a wonderful movie, which in my opinion is quite under-rated. It has the ring of more real-life veracity and worldly wisdom than one can easily find on the non-fiction side of the movie theater aisle. Enjoy!
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on October 25, 2010
Not quite spell-binding but certainly attention holding, well acted and believable. Those who act the parts of C.I.A. operatives and British men of similar ilk fulfill all our prejudices about those "full-of-themselves" spives. Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are totally believable in their roles as co-opted publisher's agent and she as the facilitator of a dissident Russian scientist. But the happy ending? I was sent back to my copy of Russia House to re-read how it really ended. See the movie because I'm not going to tell!
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on April 4, 2014
This has been a favourite movie of mine. I do have it on VHS, but wanted it on DVD, for
obvious reasons. I do watch it from time to time, as it is one those movies that primarily
is non-violent, but excels in intrigue. Well acted and well casted, this movie has become
a well deserved classic. (Shep)
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on October 14, 2001
Although I have not seen the DVD (it hasn't been released yet) I have watched the VHS version at least 40 times. A spy movie set during the Cold War, The Russia House stars Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. Connery is a British publisher, Barley Scott Blair, who is sent manuscripts by a Russian woman named Katya (Pfeiffer). However, the manuscripts are intercepted by British intelligence and are analysis of the Soveit Empire's nuclear capabilities. Blaire is convinced to play the role of spy for the British, and he must befirend Katya in order find the author of the manuscripts (the mysterious Dante.) As the story unfolds, Blaire and Katya grow closer to each other, and Blair soon finds himself trapped between the loyalties he has to his mother country and to Katya.
This is an extremely terrific movie, but is also very confusing. I had to watch it 7 times before the plot really made sense to me, but once I understood what was going on, it was a joy to watch it over and over again. This is not one of Connery's most famous works, but it is certainly one of his best. Reprising his role as spy, Connery does a much better job of it than as James Bond. Michelle Pfeiffer is similary convincing as Katya, who is caught in between the politics of Russia and Britan.
I whole heartedly recommend this movie, but I do caution anyone who has not seen it before to rent it first. A DVD version is long overdue and still the features the DVD will have are only subtitles and widescreen, which is perfect for some of the beautiful landscape scenes in Russia.
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on November 15, 2001
This is a Tom Stoppard adaptation of a John Le Carré Book, but apart from the fact that it is a spy drama, this is a complete contrast from Le Carré's most famous work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's somehow less cynical, and more positive. Although Sean Connery's character Barley is a reluctant spy, you feel that if this were Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he would have been killed for 'knowing too much' instead, the security services are quite civil to him, the worst he gets from them is raised eyebrows when he attempts independent operation. The story, set in the time of Glasnost makes some serious points which are a bit dated now, but were at the time an important change in the way in which spy dramas were written. The photography is marvellous and being filmed almost entirely on location, the vistas of Moscow and Lenningrad are like one long tourist advertisement. Jerry Goldsmith's usually excellent music is let down here by being too intrusive, almost as though the film's producers couldn't bear to leave any part of the soundtrack unfilled. By contrast, the clarinet playing of Branford Marsalis is appropriate and sublime, even if Connery hasn't quite got the hang of miming the thing! Sean Connery himself, as with all the players turn in strong performances, although it's a little unrealistic that someone 28 years younger than he would fall in love with him (I bet the ages were closer in the book!) especially as his make-up and wig aren't as 'young' as they usually are.
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on July 15, 2003
You truly cannot go wrong with a combination like Connery (who is instantly likeable) and Pfeifer (who is stunningly moving in her role as a working Russian mother of two). But despite what could have been a pretty gripping theme with unpredictable twists, this just ends up being a directorial mess. Another reviewer suggested that this ought to be viewed as a spy drama not a spy thriller. To me, that sounds like a poor excuse for story telling gone astray.
Blair (Sean Connery) is a British publisher with a clear affinity for Russia, and has received a manuscript from Pfeifer's character, Katya, which he believes contains Soviet military secrets. The British intelligence SOMEHOW gets to know of this (will we ever know how and when) and Blair gets reluctantly involved in a plot to find out more about Katya and her associations. We are sort of made to feel on whose side Blair is on, and who the "bad guys" are (clue: CIA and the Queen's men of course) but my problem with the movie is it never really quite grabs you by the collar and drag you into the theme, or at least give the impression that anything terribly important is at stake.
It starts, goes on and on with some guys doodling in a very CIA like fashion amidst some glorious shots of Moscow, and suddenly everything comes to an end with the bad guys left in the dust by a very cleverly hatched scheme by Blair and Katya -- so sinister a scheme indeed than even the audience is left bewildered. Yeah.
While the movie sports some clever, even funny, moments, overall the narrative is boggling and wanders from concept to concept. Some directorial coherence for the audience would have been great. If the combination of Connery and Pfeifer intrigues you, especially a Russian accented Pfeifer, this may be worth a watch. Otherwise, a strangely intriguing movie.
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on January 2, 2001
"Crowds are good, if you're moving. Open spaces are good. Talk in the street, if you have to. Never talk in a car or a hotel room, except for the benefit of their microphones" says the British agent Ned (James Fox) to Barley Blair(Sean Connery), a somewhat reluctant participant in the supposedly anesthetized espionage scene circa Glasnost. Blair is a civilian, a publisher in love with Russia and its writers. He had joined them in what is affectionately named the "writer's village" somewhere in this excitingly open Russia, where he and this select group of boozy intellectuals had discussed saving the world between lunch and dinner. His idealism was noted. An intermediary, Katya (Michelle Pfieffer) sends him a book, authored by a man known as Dante (as in Dante's Inferno) that relegates the Soviet Nuclear threat, and consequently the arms race with the United States to the toilet. British Intelligence get hold of the book before Blare does. And so begins another complex chapter in John Le Carre's quest to eliminate the mythic nobility of espionage, and magnify those who are caught in the crossfire.
Dante, played superbly by German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, must have read quite a few of Le Carre's novels, he doesn't trust Western intelligence or intelligence people at all for that matter. To him, they are all "gray men" and in a moving scene, he recounts how gray men, never to be heard from again apprehended and killed his father. He knows that Blair will be working for British Intelligence, but he will deal only with a civilian, a "Joe agent". Meanwhile, Katya, extremely beautiful in a haggard Russian sort of way develops a liking to the rusty charmer Blair. Katya had been Dante's lover back in their student days. And a quietly touching love triangle develops as a counterpoint to the all the arcane goings on.
The Russia House comes with an exceptional filmmaking pedigree. The schizophrenic director Fred Schepisi was on his talented side coming off the powerful A Cry in the Dark. He furnishes Le Carre's distinctive world with the pre-requisite amount of oak lined rooms, sedate men smoking, talking, drinking hard liquor in ice filled high-quality glassware, while the scent of betrayal hovers. The script by English playwright Tom Stoppard wisely avoids suffocating the film with unsolicited suspense scenes to makes the film more commercial or accessible. This is a talky, demanding, plot heavy film. The whole thing is laced with a memorable, jazzy Jerry Goldsmith score that perfectly underscores the photogenic Lisbon, Leningrad and Moscow (where most of the film is set.)
Several stellar performances are to be found among the supporting cast. Namely Roy Schieder (himself a veteran of such spy films as Marathon Man) as the foul mouthed CIA attaché, who in some scenes is called upon to explain the labyrinthine plot. On the British side, in genius bit of casting, director Ken Russell plays Walter, the eccentric, cynical "character", who seems disgusted to have to explain the mechanics and the subtleties to all those cold war rookies. These characters more then makes up for the absence of Smiley, who Le Carre veterans would remember as the looming figure whose sinister fingerprints are mostly felt in his absence.
The film's problems are more central. As Blair, Connery gives what is easily one his best performances. But he is still Sean Connery, sometimes shaken, never stirred. He is supposed to be equal parts charmer and a washout, but when he describes himself as a "walking unmade bed", you can't help but smile. This being Le Carre territory, you shouldn't. The performance pales in comparison to Richard Burton's haunting Alec Leamus in Martin Ritt's incomparable 1965 masterpiece The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I couldn't help but think that an actor like Albert Finney would have brought much needed pathos to the part. The pathos, or lack thereof is part of the film's larger problem. For all what is at stake in the end, The Russia House doesn't have that palpable sense of doom that permeated the 1965 film. The enemy here are those who would still profit from the cold war. They are fought in elegant offices on the Western side of things, not grim debriefing rooms behind the iron curtain. This probably makes the film more relevant. It also makes for far less compelling drama.
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