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The Russia House

The Russia House(1990)

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teaser The Russia House (1990)

After winning a late life Academy Award® for playing a Chicago cop turned special case detective in Brian De Palma's big screen retooling of The Untouchables (1987), Sean Connery did what any sensible Scotsman would do: he went right back to work. Although the San Francisco-set murder mystery The Presidio (1988) was hardly worth his time, the 68-year-old Connery found himself put to better use as Harrison Ford's adventurer father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Returning exhausted from filming on four continents, Connery backed out of a promise to headline John Boorman's Where the Heart Is (1990) in which he was replaced by Dabney Coleman but was back on his feet in time for Sidney Lumet's New York crime comedy Family Business (1989), opposite Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick. Although Connery had hoped to appear as The Player King in Tom Stoppard's big screen adaptation of his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), a throat cancer scare forced him once again to demure. (Arbitration obliged Connery to buy out of his contract to the tune of $300,000 while his part went to Richard Dreyfuss.) When the nodules on Connery's vocal cords proved to be benign, the actor broke a physician-mandated thirty-day vow of silence to sign on as a Russian submarine commander in John McTiernan's The Hunt for Red October (1990). It was Sean Connery's first post-Untouchables success and the feature netted MGM a happy $120 million in rentals.

While The Hunt for Red October was being edited, Connery jumped at a second chance to collaborate with Tom Stoppard. For producer Paul Maslansky, the acclaimed British playwright adapted the espionage thriller The Russia House (1990) from the 1989 novel by John le Carr (nom de plume of former British secret service op David John Moore Cornwell). The production would mark the first time a Western film company was allowed to shoot inside the Soviet Union with full government permission. Connery's contract permitted him casting approval.

While a number of local actresses were considered to play Katya Orlova, a Soviet book editor who enlists Connery's expatriate publisher to smuggle the notebooks of an apostate scientist out of the country, Connery and director Fred Schepisi chose Michelle Pfeiffer. The California-born beauty had spent ten busy years in the business but her Hollywood stock rose dramatically after the back-to-back successes of Tequila Sunrise (1988), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Connery also okayed the hiring of James Fox and Klaus Maria Brandauer. Fox's brother Edward had appeared opposite Connery in the Thunderball (1965) remake Never Say Never Again (1983), in which Brandauer had been Connery's choice to play the villain. Coincidentally, Connery had replaced Brandauer in The Hunt for Red October when the Austrian actor got bogged down on the Bavarian set of his first directorial effort.

Connery had been a guest in the Soviet Union twenty-one years earlier, playing doomed Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen in The Red Tent (1969), the final film by Mikheil Kalatozishvili. Nervous KGB agents had shadowed Connery's every move through that production, taking the actor's cinematic association with intrigue and espionage a little too seriously. The Soviet Union to which Connery returned in 1989 was greatly changed. Billeted for the ten-week shoot in Moscow's dreary Ukraina Hotel, Connery found the decrepit state of the country in the era of perestroika reminiscent of post-WWII Great Britain: endless queues, shortages of staples for everyday living, bureaucratic incompetence and generalized shoddiness. Nonetheless, he had nothing but praise for Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he tried (unsuccessfully) to nominate in his place as People magazine's "world's sexiest man." If the conditions were dire, Connery at least could take comfort in a top-flight supporting cast, among whom were Roy Scheider, John Mahoney (a jobbing theatre and film actor who got a leg over with a featured role in the 1987 hit Moonstruck) and J.T. Walsh, along with such reliable British troupers as Michael Kitchen, Ian McNeice, and film director Ken Russell in an unexpected cameo as an unorthodox agent of British intelligence.

MGM had high hopes for The Russia House, which it set for a Christmas week opening. The film's post-premiere party was an embarrassment of Old Hollywood riches: thirty-five chandeliers hung inside a vast tent, the asphalt underfoot resurfaced in blue vinyl, and a 110-table dining area festooned with one thousand pieces of antique furniture borrowed from the prop department of Warner Brothers and tapestries from the 1938 film Marie Antoinette. Long story short, The Russia House was no The Hunt for Red October. Michelle Pfeiffer's Golden Globe nomination notwithstanding, the film was a box office under-performer. Critical reaction was all over the map. While The Washington Post considered it "one of the year's best," Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert panned the "weary spy formula" and Tom Stoppard's "lifeless and boring" screenplay. Rolling Stone could only offer the backhanded compliment "laudably ambitious" while Vincent Canby clucked that the film "comes on like a drill sergeant who talks fast and feeds the recruits more information than they can possibly absorb." Perhaps the unkindest cut came from Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa, authors of The Films of Sean Connery, who declared The Russia House "as exciting as a tour of a babushka factory."

Producer: Paul Maslansky, Fred Schepisi
Director: Fred Schepisi
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard, John le Carre (novel)
Cinematography: Ian Baker
Film Editing: Beth Jochem Besterveld, Peter Honess
Art Direction: Richard MacDonald
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Sean Connery (Bartholomew Scott Blair), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katya Orlova), Roy Scheider (Russell), James Fox (Ned), John Mahoney (Brady), Michael Kitchen (Clive).
C-122m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

SOURCES:
Sean Connery by John Parker
Sean Connery: Neither Shaken Nor Stirred by Andrew Yule
The Films of Sean Connery by Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa

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