Adult Fiction · Romance · TV & Movies

The Russia House: On James Bond, Atomic Blonde, and Being a Realistic Spy Movie

The Russia House is a 1990 espionage movie starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s based on a novel by John le Carre, who’s sort of the bureaucrat’s Ian Fleming. I’ve said we should talk more about action movies, so here we are — but it is based on a book, the main character is a publisher, and it’s very bookish in general, so it’s relevant. And as far as action/spy movies are concerned, it’s very interesting indeed.

the-russia-house-movie-poster-1990-1020235206In itself, The Russia House is notable because it’s both a love story set abroad and a Cold War spy movie. It’s a remarkably successful fusion in that you can’t see the seams of the two genres and fans of either would probably enjoy it. Possibly because of that fusion, it also moves at an unhurried pace, weeks and months rather than the days and hours of most modern spy movies. It’s one of only two movies filmed on location in the Soviet Union while that was a thing, and it takes full advantage of that opportunity to show the landscapes and cityscapes and really make you feel like you’re there. The main character, Barley Blair (Connery), is a British publisher, and you really get that atmosphere of bookish people in a foreign city.

The movie is most interesting for what it signifies beyond itself, though. I’m watching this now because I heard it mentioned in connection to Atomic Blonde, which I loved. The two are set very close together at the end of the Cold War, and they both hinge on the idea of an earthshattering list that’ll change the spy world if it’s released. In both movies, the list is something more than just a plot device, it’s a theme to some extent. As one character says in The Russia House: “I don’t like lists, Clive. Lists tell you too much about the people who make them.” For both films, if these lists escape, the whole structure of the Cold War is over, betraying the anxiety we felt and still feel about how we should deal with that old reliable structure crumbling.

Still, in both cases the list is a relatively minor theme. More foundationally, both movies use audio recordings as a central motif. The Russia House indicates a growing sense of surveillance in the world, the new idea of everything being faithfully recorded. There’s no real sense of oppression, it’s not presented as dread of a looming government, just a matter-of-fact awareness that people are being recorded, and that sometimes they play to the audio. But it’s comparatively subtle. Atomic Blonde turns this, and everything else, up to 11, with every agent recording everything, but that sense of straightforward purpose and reliability is totally gone. It’s a self-referential spiral that almost gives you the feeling they only want to record themselves, to reassure themselves that they spoke. Tapes can be edited, tapes can mislead, tapes can make no sense except to the people who were there, and even then the parties involved may understand the conversation quite differently. We’ve come a long way in the past 27 years, and the idea of frightening or governmental recording is not the first, last, or only thing to be said on the subject.

atomic blonde still
Atomic Blonde. Note the slightly uncomfortable (but not claustrophobic) staging with the tape recorder, mirror, and smoke.

Atomic Blonde feels very modern, perfectly styled and visually textured, expensively shot, and featuring a queer woman as the protagonist. The Russia House is nothing like that. There’s a scene set in a book publishers’ party, and it’s a room full of aging white men with the occasional fashionably-dressed younger woman in the mix, and I just cringed. Even so, though, placing Sean Connery in the lead role makes a statement. Connery will always be the original James Bond, with all the cultural baggage that entails. Bond is an icon of problematic masculinity — unemotional, impervious to all injuries physical or otherwise, and interested only in objectified women. There’s an inescapable commentary in casting Connery as an older man, an essentially normal one, and anything but impervious. The whole movie, with it being half romance, is kind of about him being emotionally compromised. (In turn, Pfeiffer’s Katya is an intense and driven character who launches the whole plot, not a sexualized object). Plus, as an unwilling agent in the first place, Barley is a whole different animal from Bond.

Atomic Blonde is a movie about being an action movie, about playing to an audience, and about any number of other things that aren’t relevant here. James Bond, similarly, was always about the cool. Either way, in those worlds spies are attractive, fit, suave, wealthy, virtuosos of hand-to-hand combat, and spying is their 100% job. When they’re done spying on one thing, they head off somewhere else to spy on another thing. That’s not the way real spies worked during the Cold War. Spies could be anyone, because they weren’t sent in to infiltrate your life, they were people you already knew who were coerced or enticed into providing information to the government. The glamour is nil, but the stakes are much higher, because you’re not a past-less secret agent, it’s your life and your family. The Russia House is faithful to that. (For more on this, I recommend the slim nonfiction book The File by Timothy Garton Ash).

the russia house still large
Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery falling in love in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

In sum, The Russia House is about Sean Connery, and everything he represents to American and British culture, getting older. It’s about spying, surveillance and recording. It’s about anxiety over what we’ll do without the organizing structure of the Cold War to guide us. Yet none of that affects the movie’s structure on a fundamental level like it will later in Atomic Blonde; any such differences come from the fusion of a full romance into the plot. Le Carre’s books and movie adaptations are known for being slower and more realistic than the slick action-based spy films, and The Russia House is not a movie to watch when you want a thrill. But it’s very, very interesting as an artifact… And even if you’re not into the genre and don’t care about the meta aspects, it’s still a nice choice for a rainy afternoon.


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