An expatriate British publisher unexpectedly finds himself working for British intelligence to investigate people in Russia.
It would be easy to say "they don't make them like this anymore" when reviewing 1990's 'The Russia House', but the fact is that even back in 1990 they weren't making them like this. Based on John le Carré's novel, 'The Russia House' is a spy movie without a hint of action in it...no fights, no chases, and with any hint of violence kept off screen. Not only doesn't the movie feature any gunplay, I don't even think a gun makes an appearance in the film...if it does, it's holstered. What's left is a story that demands you pay attention. The screenplay here doesn't stop to pander to the audience or spell things out for them. Your attention is required from the first frame, and this is one of the few movies where the story is almost always ahead of the audience instead of several steps behind it.
Sean Connery stars as 'Barley' Scott-Blair, a British citizen who runs a publishing company and finds himself detained by British Intelligence in Moscow when a Russian woman by the name of Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to pass him a manuscript from a man known only as 'Dante' (Klaus Maria Brandauer) that contains information about the Soviet's military might – or, more importantly – the lack of it. Dante wants the material to be published to show the world that the U.S.S.R. isn't as powerful as believed. Barley has actually met Dante already, although he didn't know his background or who he was, but swears he doesn't know Katya. However, when the Brits show him a photo of her, he's immediately smitten by her image.
The Brits want Barley to work undercover with them by getting back in contact with Dante and confirming that the information in his manuscript is legitimate. Of course, to do so, he'll need to establish contact with Katya and once he does, it becomes obvious very quickly that Barley is falling in love with her. Eventually, the CIA and American military become involved as well (featuring characters played by Roy Scheider, J.T. Walsh, and John Mahoney), and much of the movie is spend watching the Brits and Americans quibble about how much Barley can be trusted with this mission.
What makes 'The Russia House' so interesting – and, to some, so alienating – is the way its plot unfolds. As mentioned at the onset of this review, this is the anti-action spy movie. Everything that develops story-wise comes through conversations. That means you better have some darn good actors to keep the audience's attention. Fortunately, 'The Russia House' is loaded with great acting, with Connery doing most of the heavy lifting (Barely is probably the most interesting and layered character of the actor's career). There are a few missteps along the way – Scheider's CIA chief is a little too one-note, and Ken Russell's (the director in one of his few acting roles) British intelligence officer seems like he belongs in another movie – but, for the most part, the performances are top-notch. Even Michelle Pfieffer, who you would think might be miscast as a Russian divorcee, holds her own next to the seasoned Connery.
Perhaps the movie's biggest appeal, however, is that it actually serves as a travelogue of the former Soviet Union. 'The Russia House' was the second major motion picture to be shot inside Russia (the buddy cop movie Red Heat was the first), and the film showcases some beautiful footage of both Moscow and Leningrad (which is now once again named St. Petersburg). Even viewers who don't find themselves engaged in 'The Russia House's plot should certainly enjoy its cinematography, which also proves to be somewhat of a time capsule, as when this movie was shot, the U.S.S.R. only had a few years remaining before its dissolution.
The biggest issue I had with 'The Russia House' was with its rather convenient ending – which is really the only 'Hollywood' aspect to the entire storyline. Barley and Katya are given a tidy conclusion here, while it's my understanding that the le Carré novel (which I have not read) is a little more ambiguous about their fates. That, sadly, prevents a very good film from becoming perhaps a 'great' one, but it doesn't change the fact that 'The Russia House' is still an intelligent, engaging tale and worthy of a spot in one's Blu-ray collection.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Russia House' defects to Blu-ray in a clear Elite keepcase, which houses the 50GB disc along with an 8-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Julie Kirgo. The flip side of the keepcase's slick (seen from inside the case) has a photo of the Kremlin at night. There are no front-loaded trailers on the disc, whose main menu features a still of the box cover image with menu selection on the right lower-half of the screen.
Like most Twilight Time Blu-ray releases, this edition of 'The Russia House' has been limited to 3,000 units.
The Blu-ray is region-free.
'The Russia House' was shot on 35mm film and is presented on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Because it was one of the first Hollywood productions to shoot a big chunk of its material in the Soviet Union, I was really hoping for a great transfer on this Twilight Time release (provided to them by 20th Century Fox/MGM). Unfortunately, the quality here is just middling – with some scenes looking great, some scenes looking rather flat, and a few not looking good at all.
The first thing viewers will notice is that there's still a lot of dirt and debris on the print...the opening credits are the biggest offender, but thankfully, once the credits are over, dirt is less apparent, although it's there in almost every scene of the film. Image stabilization is an issue too – the worst issue coming during a scene early in the movie where the Sean Connery character is visited in his Lisbon apartment by the James Fox and Ken Russell characters and the image shakes noticeably back and forth for a half a minute or so.
Other frequently seen Blu-ray transfer issues like banding or over-sharpening are less of an issue, although I did see a couple instances of aliasing during camera pans – although nothing too distracting. While the image does retain the film grain, it also seems to have some noise creeping into the transfer occasionally. Black levels are only average – but fortunately, there are only a couple scenes in the movie that take place at night or in dimly lit locations.
The only other Blu-ray release of 'The Russia House' that I'm aware of is a Region B release in Germany, and while I don't own that version of the movie I wouldn't be surprised at all to discover that the same transfer of the film was used here. While much of this transfer looks just fine, some parts do not, and I really wish the time/money would have been spent to properly restore this wonderfully shot film.
The featured track – and, in fact, the only track if you exclude the optional isolated score track – is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio one that sounds just fine...although there's nothing particularly exceptional about it. It provides a good rendition of what the movie originally sounded like in theaters and not much more.
Then again, given that 'The Russia House' is not just primarily, but pretty much exclusively a dialogue-only movie, anything beyond a 2.0 track would probably be unnecessary and wouldn't provide much to the aural enjoyment of the film. The mix here is nicely done, and I'm happy to report that Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful score (one of his best in a career of really good material) is clear and distinct here. There's no muddiness to the track at all, nor any obvious glitches or dropouts. Of course, this isn't exactly the type of track that will show off one's home theater speakers, but as lossless stereo tracks go, it does its job.
In addition to English 2.0 lossless track, an isolated score track (in 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio) is also available. Subtitles are an option in English SDH.
Perhaps the only major movie in the spy genre not to feature a single action sequence, 'The Russia House' is one of those films that has only grown in admiration over time. A thinking-man's (and woman's) movie, this adaptation of the John le Carré novel features strong performances, wonderful cinematography, and a great soundtrack. It's far from the typical Hollywood effort, but that's one of the reasons it has built up a cult following over the years among film buffs. Recommended.