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UPDATED:
17 January2014

Cast list

Directed by Fred Schepisi
Writing credits John le Carré (novel)
Tom Stoppard (screenplay)

Cast:
Sean Connery - Barley, Bartholomew Scott Blair
Michelle Pfeiffer - Katya, Yekarina Borisovna Orlova
Roy Scheider - Russell Sheritan
James Fox - Ned
John Mahoney - Brady
Michael Kitchen - Clive
J.T. Walsh - Quinn
Ken Russell - Walter
David Threlfall - Wicklow
Klaus Maria Brandauer - Dante (Yakov Yefremovich Savelyev)
Mac McDonald - Bob
Nicholas Woodeson - Niki Landau
Martin Clunes - Brock
Ian McNeice - Merrydew
Colin Stinton - Henziger
Denys Hawthorne - Paddy
George Roth - Cy
Peter Mariner - U.S. Scientist
Ellen Hurst - Anna
Peter Knupffer - Sergey
Nikolai Pastukhov - Uncle Matvey
Jason Salkey - Johnny
Eric Anzumonyln - Nasayan
Daniel Wozniak - Zapadny
Giorgi Anjaparidze - Yuri
Vladek Nikiforov - Tout
Christopher Lawford - Larry
Mark La Mura - Todd
Blu Mankuma - Merv
Tuck Milligan - Stanley
Jay Benedict - Spikey
David Timson - George
Yelena Stroyeva - Anastasia
Fyodor Smirnov - Watcher
Pavel Sirotin - Watcher
Paul Jutkevitch - Misha
David Henry - Jr. Minister - Whitehall
Martin Wenner - Scientist - Whitehall
Paul Rattee - Army Officer - Whitehall
Simon Templeman - Psychoanalyst - Whitehall
Gina Nikiforov - Russian Guest
Raisa Ryazanova - Russian Guest
Kate Lock - Jacky
Charlotte Cornwell - Charlotte
Craig Crosbie - Technician
Keith Edwards - Hoover
Michael Fitzpatrick - Hoover
Rob Freeman - Hoover
Gennady Venov - Katya's Father
Sasha Yatsko - Russian Writer
Vladimir Zunetov - Dan
Jack Raymond - Lev
David Ryall - Colonial Type
Alexei Jawdokimov - Arkady
Constantine Gregory - KGB Interviewer
Sergei Reusenko - KGB Man
Yegueshe Tsturvan - Flute Player
Jonathan Reason - Delegate

THE RUSSIA HOUSE


I loved this film from the first time I saw it. I saw it at the pictures early in 1991, bought the video late 1991, the DVD in 2001; have watched it loads, and have lived and breathed it ever since - it got under my skin.

 

Why? Mainly because it is set in Russia and was one of the first Western films shot there, and, it beautifully captures Moscow, St Petersburg and the Russian countryside in between; it is based on a John Le Carre novel - my favourite author; all the cast play their roles convincingly and brilliantly especially Michelle Pfeifer's portrayal of a Russian woman.

 

But the film is greater than the sum of its parts, I love the dialogue which can be witty at times, I love the jazz influenced sound track, I love the scenery; but most of all I think that the film accurately portrays some idiosyncrasies of Russian attitudes and mannerisms as well as capturing the sense of fear that pervaded encounters between Russians and Westerners in Soviet times.


It was one of the first western films to be shot on location in the USSR (actually it was the second). Red Heat was the first but with only a few scenes shot there - most of the action took place in the USA, whereas The Russia House was shot extensively in Russia with most of the action taking place there.

 

The cinematography was excellent, with the extended wide screen format beautifully capturing the Soviet capital and St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then called). The film also captures the charm and beauty of old Lisbon and its historic Alfama district.

 

John Le Carre intended that his novel be a kind of snapshot of the early days of Perestroika when the Soviet Union was becoming a more open and freer society. The policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were yet more state doctrines, imposed from above. The general population was understandably apprehensive; there was no guarantee that thing would not go back to how they were, indeed the coup attempt in 1991 is testimony to the desire of some apparatchiks to turn back the clock. Both the book and the film manages to capture the mood of that period in the dying days of the cold war when the grey men on both sides wished to perpetuate the arms race.

 

There are many reviews of this film on the internet, but I have included two independent reviews here, from when the film was originally released, which describe the film very well:

 

‘The Russia House’ (R)
By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 21, 1990

Very often, movies can be too smart for their own good, but in "The Russia House," Fred Schepisi's exceptional film of the best-selling John le Carre espionage novel, intelligence is a stirring, scintillating virtue.

 

The novel, which has been elegantly adapted by Tom Stoppard, makes a labyrinth out of the geopolitical status quo. In this world nothing can be known absolutely; everything is relative, shrouded in layer upon layer of lies, manipulations and disinformation. But Schepisi navigates the maze expertly, cleanly laying out the action so that we're drawn inside the puzzle. The movie challenges us to keep everything straight, as the very best thrillers do, and in the process makes putting together all the pieces its own heady pleasure.

 

The events of the film turn on what could be a major leaking of secrets. A manuscript containing the Soviet military master plan falls into the hands of British intelligence. It could be "the pot of gold." Or it could be a shrewdly manufactured bundle of disinformation. The man who wrote it -- a renegade physicist calling himself Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) -- may be on the level, or he may be a KGB puppet trying to sucker the West into lowering its guard.

 

Whatever turns out to be true, the CIA doesn't like it. The agency also isn't crazy about the fact that the man who was originally meant to receive the document -- a broken-down, boozy publisher by the name of Barley Blair (Sean Connery) -- makes frequent trips to the Soviet Union and may be what he says he is, a man who loves the Russian people, or a misguided peacenik or worse. At first Barley has no idea what's going on. The courier -- an editor for a Soviet publishing firm named Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- was supposed to take the material to Barley, who had impressed Dante at a Soviet writers' conference. Instead she dropped it into the hands of a colleague, who passed it on to the British authorities.

 

Dante had wanted Barley to publish his manuscript, but of course the intelligence communities in England and America won't allow that. Before they can determine what to do with it, though, they must determine whether it's true. And so Barley -- protesting all the way -- is sent back to Russia to make contact with Katya and, if all goes well, with Dante himself.

Even with all these spider-webbed plot details to sort through, "The Russia House" is more character-centered than most spy thrillers. Much of the film's action, such as it is, takes the form of interrogations, and Schepisi has turned them into tense verbal chess matches. It helps, of course, that the actors play their pieces brilliantly. Connery's Barley is a malt-cured reprobate with hipster tendencies who's gone his own way without much in the way of responsibilities or, for that matter, achievements. Barley is a shambles, like his beloved Russia, but he's his very own shambles. When the spooks grill him, he knows he has nothing to lose and turns their questions back on them with hilarious panache.

 

This may be the most complex character Connery has ever played, and without question it's one of his richest performances. Connery shows the melancholy behind Barley's pickled charm, all the wasted years and unkept promises. Barley isn't used to being taken seriously or depended on. What draws him, at first, into spying for the West is the chance it gives him to do something decent for a change. After he meets Katya, though, he has a second motive.

 

Pfeiffer's Katya is the linchpin in the drama, the straight arrow whose moral authority anchors the events, and with a less gifted actress the character could be a humorless drone. What saves Pfeiffer is the shy girlishness that peeks out from behind Katya's brusque skepticism. Katya wants to be all business, a blank-faced pro, but she can't help but respond to Barley's wry gallantries.

 

The romance between Katya and Barley doesn't follow the usual path. Their scenes are interrogations too. But beneath the business agenda, a subterranean seduction is taking place. Their romance is the biggest secret of all -- even perhaps to them -- and the tension between them, as they work on two channels at once, keeping their true feelings closeted from each other, is intoxicating.

 

Pfeiffer gives us the whole woman. Her triumph goes beyond her facility with the Russian accent; other actresses could have done that. She's great at playing contradictions, at being tough yet yielding, cloaked yet open, direct yet oblique. What's she's playing, we suspect, is the great Russian game of hide-and-seek. But Pfeiffer gives it a personal dimension. Katya holds herself in check, but her wariness, one senses, is as much personal as it is cultural -- the result, perhaps, of her own secret wounds. It's one of the year's most full-blooded performances.

 

Surrounding the leads is a gang of first-rate supporting performers. As Dante, Brandauer has a touch of the poet about him. Both James Fox as Barley's British operator, and Roy Scheider as his American counterpart, are superb. But it's the director Ken Russell, as a member of the British team, who threatens to steal the show with his fey exuberance.

 

Added to this, "The Russia House" has visual pleasures far beyond those of most thrillers. Some of this can be attributed to the heroic shots of Moscow and Leningrad (the film is the first American production to be shot inside the Soviet Union), but Schepisi and his longtime cinematographer, Ian Baker, also find imaginative ways to shoot even the most mundane settings.

 

Making a picture about the political situation in a country as much in flux as the Soviet Union can be disastrous, but the post-glasnost realities here seem plausible and up to the minute. "The Russia House" doesn't sweep you off your feet; it works more insidiously than that, flying in under your radar. If it is like any of its characters, it's like Katya. It's reserved, careful to declare itself but full of potent surprises. It's one of the year's best films.
Copyright The Washington Post

 

The Russia House -- love story or post-Cold War spy story?
THE RUSSIA HOUSE
Directed by Fred Schepisi.
Starring Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.
At Loews Copley Place.
[ah]
By PRABHAT MEHTA

 

OF THE WINTER FILMS I've seen so far, the one which most remains with me is The Russia House, an adaptation of the 1988 John le Carr'e spy novel. This, unlike a Kindergarten Cop or Home Alone, is a film of subtleties. It is intelligent and rich, with a powerful sense of time and place.

 

Indeed, time and place may be the most important attributes to this film, which covers the espionage business in the age of glasnost. It is pleasantly ironic that actor Sean Connery -- perhaps still better known as master spy "Bond, James Bond" -- returns to us as the novice spook Barley Blair.

Blair is a second-rate man, not the shining star required for hard-core, high-risk intelligence operations. He is a washed-up British publisher whose favorite pastime is getting drunk in Portugal. But little does he know that some of his drunken rhetoric has inspired a top Soviet scientist to save his nation by betraying it.

 

Through intermediary Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), Blair is to confirm the authenticity of a set of notebooks with detailed accounts of Soviet technological weakness. The notebooks were written by a dissident Soviet scientist who took to heart some of Blair's semi-mindless ramblings (sometimes, Blair says to an attentive group of Soviets, to save your country, you must betray it). The scientist, code-named Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer), hopes Blair will publish the notebooks, which would then conceivably promote nuclear disarmament.

 

However, the notebooks never reach Blair. Instead, British intelligence and ultimately the Central Intelligence Agency acquire the documents, and decide to ask Blair to go to the Soviet Union and find out the identity of the as-yet-anonymous author. Their only lead is Katya, who gave the notebooks to one of Blair's publishing colleagues at a book fair in Moscow (after Blair failed to show up).

 

Conceivably, the scene is set at this point for an action-thriller. But screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Fred Schepisi focus not so much on the intricacies of the spy racket as on the increasingly anachronistic attitudes of the Western intelligence officers and the relationship which blossoms between Blair and Katya.

 

An ethereal quality -- characterized by washed-out scenes of grey skies, quiet rides through the Russian countryside, and a gentle background of jazz -- further undermines the importance of the espionage plot. The heaviness typically associated with films of this genre has been lifted -- the Iron Curtain is gone.

 

What has returned in its place is hope -- expressed most resonantly in Pfeiffer's character. Her blossoming is powerful enough to bring meaning for the first time in Blair's waning life. The espionage plot, in the end, becomes a backdrop for Katya and Blair's love story. The myriad characters associated with the British secret service and the CIA become almost comical with their concerns over the Soviet threat to Western freedom. The Soviet Union we see in this movie is a humble beast, crumbling beneath 70-plus years of its own heavy-handedness.

 

Remarkably, in poking fun at the intelligence community, the film does not attempt a pretentious left-liberal political message. There is instead a simple honesty to the comical depiction of an entire profession suddenly rendered irrelevant by its own relentless dedication over the past 40 years.

If there is any political message, it is that glasnost has done some good. It has given a sense of renewal to the Soviet people, a new hope. And by doing so, it has given new hope to the world. At the same time, the film also reminds us that while the reforms in the Soviet Union have unleashed powerful voices, little action has been taken to restore real political and economic freedom. Goods are in short supply, and fear remains. But the war of ideas is clearly over, and love is no longer merely an escape from brutal reality but an end to achieve in itself.

 

Copyright 1991 by The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was originally published on Wednesday, January 16, 1991.
Volume 110, Number 59
The story was printed on page 12.
This article may be freely distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice, but may not be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech.