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Olivia Colman steals spy story 'The Night Manager' from high-end Brit stars

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

If you are a fine and famous British actor cast in a high-profile drama as twisty as it is deep, and you discover that Olivia Colman is one of your costars, you would do well to keep your wits about you.

Because while everyone is busy talking about how wonderful it is to see you in this fabulous project, in this amazing role, Colman will, scene by scene and with no apparent effort, steal the whole bloody show right out from under you.

She did it in "Broadchurch" and she's at it again in AMC's "The Night Manager," in which not one but two A-list stars are the obvious main draw.

Wandering through the luxe accommodations of several continents, David Farr's six-hour adaptation of John le Carré's contemporary tale "The Night Manager" pits a novice spy played by Tom Hiddleston against a lethally charming arms dealer played by Hugh Laurie.

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It is, as you can imagine, a power-couple pairing, with High Brit civility masking one's rage and the other's depravity as the two men continually take each other's measure in steely blue stare-downs and sleight-of-hand revelations.

A former soldier, Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston) has fled the conflict, and connection, of his former life to become the night manager of a posh hotel in Cairo, where the "Arab Spring" has prompted hope and violence. Sexier than a typical Le Carré hero, Pine's enigmatic servility in the middle of the crisis soon attracts the attention of a beautiful guest who turns out to be the mistress of a local crime boss and, obviously, seven kinds of trouble.

She gives Pine information that she hopes will lead to the downfall of "the worst man in the world," Richard Roper (Laurie). Publicly a philanthropic billionaire, Roper makes his money selling arms and gets his kicks by perpetuating political instability, which in turn creates a market for arms, and so on.

While trying to protect his new lover, Pine manages to get the intel to a friend in the British government. There is a leak, of course, and she is brutally killed, but not before the list she gave Pine makes its way to Angela Burr (Colman). An off-the-books British intelligence agent, she has been doggedly pursuing Roper for years, with little help, and more than occasional discouragement, from her superiors.

Without informing them or anyone, Burr recruits Pine to infiltrate Roper's inner circle.

This includes a bodyguard/assassin named Frisky (Michael Nardone), a consigliere called Corky (Tom Hollander, having a grand old time) and a lovely young girlfriend known as Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). That Pine and Jed will fall in love is as absurd as it is inevitable, ditto that ol' Corky will be loudly but ineffectively suspicious of the newcomer.

But Roper likes Pine and this is the central suspension of disbelief required to enjoy "The Night Manager." The idea that for all his gimlet-eyed acumen, Roper would take a mysterious and handsome young man, whose services he does not need, into his confidence makes absolutely no sense, at least on paper. Fortunately, this is a TV series, and one starring Laurie. Delightful, and clearly delighted, as a calmly menacing, "it really won't do, old chap" sort of villain, Laurie manages to make Roper seem in on the problem — he has no idea why he's fascinated with Pine either, except perhaps for the fun of seeing how it all plays out.

Which is exactly why viewers will watch "The Night Manager." Unapologetically sleeker and more sentimental than any George Smiley tale, and streamlined to the point of simplicity when compared with the recent "London Spy," it is tense but linear, clearly framed to take full advantage of its stars' strengths and, it must be said, their cross-demographic fan base.

Which makes Colman's performance even more important, and remarkable.

When she was cast, Farr ("Spooks," "Hanna") not only had to switch the original character's gender, he had to accommodate Colman's pregnancy, which he does with revolutionary effect. In utter contrast to the far-flung, five-star world in which much of the action takes place, Burr is squirreled away, with her tiny staff, in a messy London office the size of a closet. Perpetually exhausted and well into her third trimester, Burr clearly dresses in whatever still fits; compared with Roper in his immaculate casual wear or her dismissive overlords in their Savile Row suits, she is a sweaty, graceless mess.

But like Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson ("Fargo"), she is also just as canny, powerful and resourceful as any of the people around her. More important, Angela Burr is the only character who sees the big picture and the small, the only character attempting to balance the need for faith with the acceptance of corruption. Pine is in it for revenge and maybe redemption, Roper for the thrill, but Burr understands that stopping the Richard Ropers of the world actually matters, and not just because that's what spies do.

So while the sight of Pine and Roper circling each other over a rising body and thread count is indeed a thing of beauty, the real thrill of "The Night Manager" is watching Colman's Burr heave herself, belly first, out of yet another chair to do whatever it takes to bring just a little bit of justice to an often unjust world.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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