Over the course of the past six weeks, the BBC has been airing a lavish adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, The Night Manager; each episode reportedly took £3 million to film and produce, spanning locations such as Cairo, Mallorca and Turkey. The miniseries was fronted by a stellar cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Coleman, and it’s been met with rave reviews.
It also gave us one of 2016′s best TV villains so far - Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper, international arms dealer, and supposedly “the worst man in the world”.
Across the first episode, we don’t actually see much of Roper; primarily, we hear of him by reputation, and reputation alone. The murder of Sophie Alekan is attributed to his machinations, and it tears apart the entire world of our protagonist, Tom Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine; his business associates in Cairo are shown to be thugs and brutes, indulging in their own frequent bouts of violence. We can see the dedication with which Olivia Coleman’s Angela Burr pursues him, throwing all her resources at ensuring his capture, and describing him as “the worst man in the world”.
So when Roper eventually does appear, we expect to hate him. We almost want to hate him. But we can’t, not really. Laurie’s performance is charismatic in the extreme; from his first introduction - “Hello, I’m Dicky Roper” - there’s a sheer, infectious charm about his character. Laurie does a very good job of winning over the audience immediately; primed though we are to hate him, all of that is done away in an instance.
And for a while, this continues; as we’re introduced to his organisation, it becomes quickly apparent that Roper and his associates are all very close knit friends, who spend a lot of time messing around and making jokes at each other’s expense. It’s refreshing to see a villain depicted like this - not simply a cackling maniac, but someone with a life outside of their plans. It’s furthered by the depiction of his son; Roper isn’t just an arms dealer, he’s also a father, and it’s made very obvious that he cares deeply about his son.
Nonetheless, though, despite the charm and the charisma, it’s made gradually clear that this is not the truth; Roper’s true cynicism and brutality is hidden behind this captivating veneer. He is, in reality, a cruel, cruel man; the sort who sees the death of children and instantly thinks of how he can profit from it. Roper considers himself like the Roman Emperors - he’s supremely arrogant, and so utterly convinced of his own superiority he never realises that his operation has been infiltrated.
It all comes to the fore when he hits Jed, his girlfriend; we’ve seen clear indications before that theirs is not a happy relationship, but this is when Roper truly loses the sympathy of the audience. In the final episode, his air of charisma is now one of utter repulsion; when Roper has Jed tortured, we hate him just as much as she does. Before, there was always a part of us that wanted him to get away with it - but now, we know he has to go down.
This is one of the strongest characterisations of a villain that I’ve seen across 2016 so far; the gradual, rising crescendo wherein we realise just how truly awful this man is forms a very effective and compelling arc across this series. Hugh Laurie gives an excellent performance, one which is quite mannered and nuanced; I’d go so far as to say that his performance is the highlight of the series.
All in all, then, I think that The Night Manager is something that a lot of other programs could take some hints from when it comes to building a compelling villain - never forget that they have a life beyond their role as antagonist, and ensure that you have an actor as skilled Hugh Laurie to breathe life into a truly three dimensional character.
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