The Russia House Review

Bartholomew Scott-Blair, known as “Barley” (Sean Connery), MD of a long-established London publishing house, likes his semi-retired life in Lisbon. But one day, British Intelligence pay him a call. They want to know why a Russian woman he has never met, Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), gave a manuscript to one of Barley’s salesmen at the Moscow Book Fair, insistind that it be passed on to him. The book is written by Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer), whom Barley met at a previous writer’s conference. Now Barley is sent back to Moscow to find out what Katya, and through her, Dante, really know…

There’s an argument that John le Carré’s novels are best adapted for television than for the cinema. The longer running time of a TV serial allows the viewer to absorb the complexities of his plots. Certainly, Alec Guinness was the definitive George Smiley in the BBC adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. However, every now and again someone has a go at putting le Carré on the big screen. Sometimes the attempt misfires, as anyone who saw Diane Keaton fighting a losing battle against miscasting in The Little Drummer Girl will verify. But once in a while, the attempt pays off: Martin Ritt’s deliberately anti-glamorous (black and white) 1965 version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold featured a first-rate performance by Richard Burton. More recently, we had Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush and a generous helping of nasty wit in John Boorman’s adaptation of The Tailor of Panama.

Now we come to The Russia House. The ending of the Cold War threatened to put spy novelists out of business, so le Carré rose to the challenge of setting a novel in glasnost-era Russia. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay. The film isn’t especially hard to follow, though you do need to pay attention, especially during the first half hour, which employs several flashbacks and voiceovers from Barley’s interrogation in Lisbon. However, despite the convolutions of the plot, The Russia House is at base a love story. You can see this in Connery’s face as he sees Katya for the first time, her picture projected onto a screen. This is certainly one of Connery’s better performances of the 1990s. Some people considered Pfeiffer miscast as a Russian, though I’m not one of them. There weren’t any high-profile Soviet actresses at the time, so the casting of an American was excusable. (Nowadays, Ingeborga Dapkounaite, who played a lead in Burnt by the Sun and who had a featured role in Mission Impossible, might well be a contender for such a role.) Pfeiffer manages to avoid the trap Meryl Streep sometimes falls into: displaying brilliant technique rather than bringing a part to life. Despite the difference in her and Connery’s ages (she’s playing a woman of about her own age, with two children), you can accept this love story and the character’s mutual attraction. As many women will tell you, Connery certainly still has that certain something. There’s a strong supporting cast, enlivened by Ken Russell’s flamboyant turn as a British Intelligence man. Way down the cast list is Martin Clunes as the man taping Barley’s interrogation. The disappointment is Brandauer’s brief, rather low-key role. This was one of the great screen actors of the 1980s: watching him here is a reminder of his virtual absence from our screens over the last ten years.

The Russia House is a film driven largely by dialogue. Intelligent and well-written dialogue, to be sure, but if this film were in the hands of a lesser director it might well make for dull viewing. What lifts it above the norm is Fred Schepisi’s direction, which makes it a pleasure to watch for sheer craftsmanship alone. In a BBC Omnibus documentary on the making of the film, broadcast in January 1992 to coincide with the British release, Schepisi said that Moscow is a very big, very wide city. It was difficult to fit it all in, even when shooting in Scope. There’s a very striking shot which seems to be set inside a museum or a palace…then through an archway we see a Metro train go past. All of Schepisi’s features bar one (his first, The Devil’s Playground) were shot in 2.35:1, and MGM’s DVD of The Russia House provides an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio. Schepisi and his longtime cinematographer Ian Baker (who shot all his features except his most recent, Last Orders) use wide-angle lenses a lot, which does result in some distortion at the extreme edges of the frame, with straight lines becoming bow-shaped. However, they use the increased depth of field to good advantage. This was the last film they shot with anamorphic lenses (from Six Degrees of Separation onwards, all of Schepisi’s features have been filmed in Super 35) and you can sense the usual dilemma: how to use the wide screen well, while still protecting themselves from the inevitable panning and scanning for home viewing. Schepisi and Baker’s solution is to often place the actors across the whole width of the screen, and to fill the frame with visual detail, but to restrict the “important” detail (usually, whoever is speaking) to an area 4:3-shaped. It’s a pity that this is an acceptable but not great transfer: there are aliasing problems, and the occasional odd “jump”.

The soundtrack is the original Dolby Surround, in a choice of five languages: the original English and four dubs. As this is a dialogue-heavy film, the surrounds are largely left over to Jerry Goldsmith’s score and some ambience. There are a somewhat ungenerous sixteen chapter stops and a static menu viewable in five languages (the same five as the soundtrack). Like many MGM discs, this is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

The only extra is the trailer, which is in anamorphic 2.35:1 with a Dolby Surround soundtrack (English only). It’s obvious from the length (3:32) that this film wasn’t an easy sell. A commentary would be good, though as far as I’m aware Schepisi has yet to record one. The BBC documentary referred to above would have made a nice extra, had that occurred to someone at MGM.

The Russia House is a very well made, absorbing and intelligent spy story that somehow lacks a vital spark. It’s probably best avoided by those who prefer thrills of a more visceral kind. With that proviso out of the way, it’s still worth your time, as an underrated film by an often-underrated director. The DVD is acceptable but certainly could have been better.

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