The Russia House (1990) – Fred Schepisi

Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, and J.T. Walsh star in the cinematic adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, The Russia House. Written for the screen by Tom Stoppard, the film was the first, big Western film to be shot on location in the Soviet Union.

Featuring a gorgeous score by Jerry Goldsmith, one of his personal favourites, and featuring solos by Branford Marsalis, the romantic spy drama finds a boozy, British publisher, Barley (Connery) being contacted by a lovely Russian editor, Katya (Pfeiffer) who pens him a love letter and hints that someone Barley knows by the name of Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) wants him to publish an important manuscript in the name of peace.

Of course, Barley’s intended mail and package don’t reach him in Lisbon, they reach British Intelligence who then recruits the publisher to go to Russia to discover if the nuclear claims made in Dante’s manuscript can be verified.

British Intelligence, overseen by Ned (Fox), coaches Barley on some rudimentary spycraft, and the information that Barley will need to gather to help establish Dante’s credentials. While Barley is in Russia, the Brits reach out to their American brethren, Russell (Scheider), Brady (Mahoney) and Quinn (Walsh) who become involved when Dante’s proven to be a high-ranking scientist.

Barley finds himself falling in love with Katya, not a lusty affair of the heart, but an adult, lasting love, and he’s a little awestruck by it, even as he seeks a way to navigate the shadowy business he finds himself in.

But what if the Russians rumble what the Western intelligence groups are up to, what if they can use Barley against himself?

The Russia House is a beautifully shot, well-crafted romantic drama in which Russia herself is a character. There are lingering shots of landscapes, architecture, people, humanizing the Russian experience in a way that, before then, had never found its way onscreen in this way.

Connery slips easily into the role of Barley, and the scenes between him, Fox, and Scheider are some of my favourites in the film. I love how the tale moves back and forth as the Intelligence services listen to Barley’s tapes, the things that are only seen and not heard, and the gorgeous location work.

But that score. I loved this score, I had it on cassette back in the day, and though I had only seen the film once, I played that tape over and over.

I hadn’t seen this since the film originally came out, and while I may not have enjoyed it tons then, I really got into it this time around, letting the story build, letting the characters find their way, and watching the way the groups played their international game of chess.

This one has aged very well.


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