Picks and Pans Review: The Russia House

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer

Nothing against moral ambiguity, but it's rarely this much fun to watch. Then you rarely have Connery and Pfeiffer around, or Fred (Roxanne) Schepisi directing them or a novel like John le Carré's (gracefully adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard).

It's an added pleasure to see Connery, the movies' greatest fantasy spy, playing Le Carré's super low-tech, grudging amateur agent, Barley Scott Blair. He is a British book publisher turned liaison for a Soviet scientist, Klaus Maria Brandauer, who wants to reveal all the U.S.S.R.'s weapons secrets so the arms race will end. Pfeiffer is the Soviet publishing company worker who is go-between for Brandauer and Connery.

The Connery-Pfeiffer love story is convincing. Despite a 27-year age difference, the two actors are a nice match—they look bedraggled and frumpy apart, glamour-pussy together. And no doubt even people engaged in saving the world worry about whom they're going to sleep with. But the smoochy stuff is overdone, especially in an end sequence where Schepisi uses a technique only a bit less dreadful than nuclear war itself—romantic slow motion.

Still, the film makes manifest the dilemmas of Le Carré's story. Connery is torn among his country, Pfeiffer and Brandauer's crackpot but alluring notions of waging peace. Pfeiffer, a divorcée, is worried about her children as well as Connery and Brandauer. Brandauer must decide if his larger loyalty is to the U.S.S.R. or to humanity. James (A Passage to India) Fox, neatly restrained as the British intelligence officer who "runs" Connery, is dutiful yet obviously likes his reluctant agent. Roy Scheider, a vulgar CIA official, displays a sense of fairness even as he represents arms interests threatened by notions of peace.

All these concerns swirl quietly. Devoid of onscreen violence, the film is still unsettling. Schepisi co-opts the audience into going through the anguish of choice, the ultimate of which—is the world even worth saving?—isn't calculated to send you out of the theater whistling. (R)

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