Not bad as travelogue

Wednesday, May 8, 1991

The Russia House
Director Fred Schepisi
Starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer
Reviewed by Ian Bolas

Predictable is the best word to describe The Russia House, both for its strengths and its weaknesses. There is nothing surprising either in the high quality of the film's production values or in its political vacuousness.

Schepisi's film of Le Carre's novel tells the story of a drunken London publisher (Sean Connery) who is contacted by a Russian woman, Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) at a Moscow book fair. She wants him to publish a book written by a prominent Soviet scientist who is a friend and former lover (Klaus Maria Brandauer). The book is intended to deal a fatal blow to the arms race and advance the cause of world peace by revealing the backwardness of Russian weapons systems.

The rather naive assumption is that once this is known in the West, the US military will have no justification for continuing its armaments program. The book falls into the hands of British intelligence, and Barley (the publisher) is recruited to verify its source and authenticity. The Brits also bring the CIA into the game.

In the end, Barley betrays his country to save Katya (now his lover) and her family. They are reunited in Lisbon and seem set to live happily ever after with the tacit approval of British intelligence (and presumably the CIA and the KGB). All very moving.

Feminists may have some difficulty with the naturalising of Katya's relationship with Barley, who is clearly some 30 years her senior. They may also question the need for a man to rescue this committed and independent woman from the consequences of her actions.

All this is just another variation on Le Carre's now rather worn themes of the past 30 years: ideology is a delusion; revolution or any political activism is hopelessly quixotic; there is no class struggle, only a contest between superpowers, one of which isn't even very super any more; both sides are rotten (though there are some decent chaps in the CIA) and only individual people are nice; personal loyalty is the only value to live by, and the only sensible course is to make peace as best you can and go off to Lisbon with your lover.

Despite its pretensions, The Russia House is just another piece of status quo propaganda. It's unlikely the suggestion that US militarism is just a response to the (now outdated) Soviet threat would get much of a hearing in Baghdad.

All this emptiness is predictably well packaged. The acting is good, perhaps better than it need be, the direction and camera work are Australian and very competent. With locations in Moscow, Leningrad, Vancouver and Lisbon, the film has the visual appeal of a superior travelogue.

That all this talent and potential adds up to so little is a consequence of, and abundant comment on, the banality of its political perspective. All the style in the world can't compensate for an absence of content. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold said it ago. n

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