Gendered Violence as Revelation in John le Carré’s The Night Manager




Gender, Consent, Noir,

How to Cite

McNicol, E. J. B. (2020). Gendered Violence as Revelation in John le Carré’s <em>The Night Manager</em>. M/C Journal, 23(4).
Vol. 23 No. 4 (2020): revelation
Published 2020-08-12

Susanne Bier and David Farr’s 2016 television adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager (“Manager”) indexes the resilience of traditional Christian misogyny in contemporary British-American media. In the first episode of the series, Sophie (Aure Atika)’s partner Freddie Hamid (David Avery) brutally beats her. In the subsequent scene, despite her scars, Sophie has a sex scene with the eponymous night manager Pine (Tom Hiddlestone). Sophie’s eye socket and the left side of her face bear fresh bruises and wounds throughout the sex scene. And in the sixth and final episode, Pine and Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) have sex after she has been tortured at length by her partner Roper’s (Hugh Laurie) henchman, at Roper’s request. Jed’s neck, face, and arms bear bruises from the torture.

These sex scenes function as a space of revelation. I interpret the women’s wounds and injuries alongside a feminist-critical tradition of reading noir on screen. Inaugurated by Ann Kaplan’s 1978 Women in Film Noir, many feminist commentators have since made the claim that women in noir achieve a peculiar significance, and their key scenes a subversive meaning; “in excess of” their punitive treatment within the narrative (Kaplan 5; Harvey 31; Tasker Working Girls 117). My reading emphasizes a tension between Manager’s patriarchal narrative framing and these two sex scenes that I argue disrupt and subvert the former.

That Sophie and Jed are brutalised by their partners does not tell us much: it is a routine expectation in British-American film and television that “bad guys” are tough on “their” chicks. It is only after these violent encounters with their partners, when the women share “romantic” moments with Pine, that the text’s patriarchal entitlement is laid bare (“revelation” stems from Late Latin revelare to “lay bare”). Forgetting about their cuts, injuries and bruises, they desire Pine, remove their clothes, and are stimulated, stimulating, pleasuring, and pleasured. Director Bier and writer Farr assume that a 2016 British and American audience will (i) find these encounters between Sophie and Pine, and Pine and Jed, to be romantic and tender; and also (ii) find Pine’s behavior consistent with that of a “savior”. These expectations regarding audience complicity are truly revelatory.

Sophie and Jed’s wounds constitute a space of revelation: the wounds are in excess of, and spill over, the patriarchal narrative framing. Their wounds indicate that the narrative has approached a moment of excessive patriarchal entitlement—emphasising extreme power imbalances between Pine and the women—and break through the narrative framing and encourage feminist enquiry. I use feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon’s theory of consent to argue that, given this blatant power inequity, it could be interpreted the characters have different perspectives of the sexual act and it is questionable whether the women are in fact consenting (182).

Critical Reception

Academic engagement with John le Carré’s well-respected espionage novels continues to emerge, including the books of Myron Aronoff, Tony Barley, Matthew Bruccoli and Judith Baughman, John Cobbs, David Monaghan, Peter Lewis and Peter Wolfe. There are a small number of academic commentaries exploring the screen adaptations of his novels, including Eric Morgan’s “Whores and Angels” and Geraint D’Arcy’s “Essentially, Another Man’s Woman”. Unfortunately, there are almost no academic commentaries on Manager, with the exception of Gunhild Agger’s “Geopolitical Location and Plot in The Night Manager”, and none that focus on the handling of gender themes within it.

However, there are abundant mainstream media articles and reviews of Manager. I randomly selected seven of these articles and reviews in order to gauge the response to these sex scenes within a 2016 British-American media community. I looked at articles and reviews by Hal Boedeker, Caitlin Flynn, Tim Goodman, Jeff Jensen, Tom Lamont, Jasper Rees, and Claire Webb. None of the articles mention the theme of “gender” or note the gendered violence in the series. The reviews are complicit with the patriarchal narrative framing, and introduce Sophie and Jed in terms of their physical appearances and in their relation to principal male characters. “Beautiful and pale” Jed is “girlfriend of Bogeyman arms dealer” (Jensen), and is also referred to as “Roper’s long-legged trophy girlfriend” (Rees). Sophie, in a “sultry brunette corner” is a “tempting, tragic damsel-in-distress” (Rees) and “arouses Pine” (Jensen). However, reviewers describe the character Burr (who is male in the novel but played by Olivia Colman in the series) with greater dignity and detail. Introducing the character Sophie (Aure Atika), reviewer Tom Goodman does not refer to her by character or actress name despite the fact he introduces male characters by both. Instead, Sophie is a “beautiful connected woman” and is subsequently referred to as “the woman” (Goodman). This anonymity of Sophie as character, and Atika as actor, indexes the Christian misogyny in operation here: in Genesis, Adam only names Eve after the fall of man (New International Version, Gen. 3:20). Goodman’s textual erasure supports Sophie’s vulnerability and expendability within the narrative logic. Indeed, the reviews recapitulate stock noir themes, suggesting that the women are seductively manipulative: Goodman implies that both Bier and Debicki both deploy beauty so as to distract or beguile (Goodman), and Jensen notes that the women are “sultry with danger” (Jensen).

Commentators and reviewers have likened Manager, with good reason, to screen adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. This is a useful comparison for the purposes of clarifying my own analytical approach. Lisa Funnell and Klaus Dodds’s Geographies, Genders and Geopolitics of James Bond, endorse a feminist geopolitical sensibility that audits which bodies are vulnerable, and which are disposable (14). Bond, like Manager’s Pine, is fundamentally privileged and invulnerable (14). Their account of Bond also describes Pine: “white, cis-gender, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied… British, attended Cambridge… he can move, act, and perform; gain access to places, spaces and resources” (1). Sophie’s vulnerability counterpoints Pine’s privilege. Against Pine’s athletic form and blond features stands the “foreign” Sophie, iterated through an emphasis on her dark features, silk dresses (that reference kaftans), and accented language (she delivers English language lines with a strong accent and discloses to Pine that she has tried to “Anglicise” her identity and has changed name). Sophie’s social and financial precarity seems behind her decision to become the mistress of violent gangster Freddie Hamid (in “Episode One” Sophie explains that Hamid “owns her”). By the end of this episode Hamid has violently beaten her then later murdered her. And even though the character Jed is white and American, it is implied that financial necessity is behind her choice of Richard Roper as partner. Jed is violently tortured and beaten in “Episode Six”.

Funnell and Dodds also note Bond’s capacity to sexually satisfy women as a key dimension of his hegemonic masculinity (1). In Manager, the spectator is presumed complicit with the narrative framing and is expected to uncritically accept Pine’s extreme desirability to women. The assumption of Pine’s sexiness and sexual competency together constitute his entitlement, made clear in sex scenes between him and Sophie, and him and Jed. These sex scenes follow events of gendered violence and I raise the possibility that they also constitute instances of gendered violence.

Noir Feminine Archetypes

Reviewers have pointed out that Manager engages with the noir tradition (Jensen). Sophie and Jed are both “fallen” women, reflecting the Christian heritage of the noir tradition, though incarnate different noir archetypes (Allen 6). Mysterious and seductive Sophie emerges as a femme fatale in the first episode: the dark and seductive girlfriend of gangster Freddie Hamid, Sophie entrusts Pine with delicate and dangerous information, leading him into a dark world. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the snake convinces Eve that the fruit does not bring death but instead knowledge. Eve wishes to share this knowledge with her partner “but keep the odds of knowledge in my power / without co-partner?” ultimately precipitating the fall of Adam and mankind (Milton 818). Sophie shares information regarding Hamid and Roper’s illegal arms deal with Pine. There are two transgressions on her part: she shares her partner’s confidential information with Pine and then has an affair with him. Hamid murders Sophie for the betrayals. However, Sophie’s murder does not erase her narrative significance: the event motivates protagonist Pine in his chief quest to ‘bring Roper down’, and as Boedeker concurs, the narrative’s action is “driven by this event”. Indeed, Yvonne Tasker notes the dual function of the femme fatale: she is both “an archetype which suggests an equation between female sexuality, death and danger” and also “functions as the vibrant centre of the narrative” (Tasker 117).

Pine’s later love interest Jed is an example of the more complicated “good-bad girl” noir type, as Andrew Spicer has usefully coined it (92). The “good-bad girl” occupies a morally ambiguous space between the (dangerously sexy) femme fatale and (fundamentally decent) “girl-next-door” (Spicer 92). Both “good” and “bad”, Jed is unmarried but living with villain Roper, whom she has presumably selected out of economic necessity; she is a mother, but this does not bestow her with maternal legitimacy as she keeps her son a secret and is physically remote from him. Jed finds “real love” with Pine and betrays Roper in assisting Pine’s espionage plot. Roper’s henchman punishes Jed for the betrayal (in the torture scene Roper laments “I saw how you looked at him last night”; “Episode 6”).

Despite the routine sexism and punitive thrust of the noir narrative, the women’s “romantic” sex scenes with Pine are laden with subversive significance. In her analysis of women in noir, Sylvia Harvey argues:

Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance. (31)

The visibility of Sophie and Jed’s wounds throughout their respective sex scenes with Pine signals an excessive patriarchal entitlement that disrupts the narrative logic and invites us to question the women’s perspectives. My analysis of the scenes is informed by feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon’s argument that under unequal power relations consent is fraught, if not impossible (180). MacKinnon argues that women’s beliefs and reactions are shaped by power inequality, including the threat of male violence, economic dependence, and need (175).

Analysis of Sophie and Pine’s Interactions

I first analyse Sophie’s dialogue because I seek to demonstrate that there is a communication breakdown in play: Sophie is asking Pine for help and safety while Pine thinks she is seducing him. Sophie’s verbal exchanges with Pine can be read in two different ways: (i) according to the patriarchal narrative framing (the spectator is positioned alongside Pine, seeing Sophie as scopophilic object); or (ii) from a feminist perspective that takes Sophie’s situation and perspective into account (Mulvey 835-36). Sophie’s language is legible as flirtation. If we are uncritically complicit with the narrative framing, Sophie is usually trying to arrange time alone with Pine because she desires him. However, if we emphasise Sophie’s perspective, she is asking for privacy, discretion, and help to stay alive (and to save the lives of others too, given that she is foiling an arms deal). Catharine MacKinnon’s observation that “men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want” plays out elegantly in the scenes between Pine and Sophie (181). Pine manages to discern that Sophie needs some sort of help, but shows no regard for her perspective or the significant power inequality between the two of them. 

From their earliest interaction in “Episode One” Sophie addresses Pine in a flirtatious way. In an audacious request, although it is ‘below’ his duties as manager she insists he make her a coffee and cheekily demands he sit with her while she drinks it. Their interaction is a standard flirtatious tête-à-tête, entailing the playful query “what do you [Pine] know of me?” Sophie begs Pine to copy some documents for her in his office even though he points out that his colleague performs such duties. Sophie suggestively demands “I would prefer to use your office”. It seems that by insisting on time alone with him, Sophie’s goal is that Pine does the task, rather than the task be done per se. However, it promptly transpires that Sophie sought a private location in order to share classified information with him, having noted at an earlier date Pine’s friendship with a British diplomat. She asks him to “hold onto” the documents “in case something happens to her”.

Pine nonetheless passes on these classified documents to this contact.

Sophie and Pine’s next interaction follows a similar pattern: she rings him from her hotel room and asks him to bring her a scotch. He suggests alternative ways she can procure a drink, yet she confirms the real object of her desire (“I want you”). Pine smirks as he approaches her room. Sophie’s declaration appears as (i) a desirous statement and invitation to come to her room for sex but it is in fact (ii) a demand that Pine (specifically) comes to her room, because she wants to know with whom he shared the documents and to reveal to him the injuries she received as a punishment for his leak.

After realising the danger he has put her in, Pine takes her to a remote house to secure her safety. Once inside, she implores “why do you sit so far away?” which sounds like a request for closeness, perhaps even that he touch her. Yet the extent of her desired proximity, and the nature of the touch she requests, can be interpreted in (at least) two ways. Certainly, Pine believes that she desires sexual intercourse with him. The spectator is meant to interpret this request along those lines by virtue of Atika’s seductive delivery. Pine explains that he sits with distance “out of respect” and Sophie teases “is that why you came all the way here, to respect me?” This remark reveals Sophie’s assumption that Pine’s assistance has been transactional (help in exchange for sex) and the content indicates the kind of sex she assumes he expects (“disrespectful” sex, or at least sex that playfully skirts the boundaries of respect). In a declaration that stands up as a positive affirmation of consent under British and American law, Sophie announces: “I want one of your many selves to sleep with me tonight.”

From a freshly bruised eye socket, Sophie lovingly stares at Pine. Extra-diegetic strings instruct us that the moment is romantic. Pine strokes the (unbruised side) side of her face. Could her question “why do you sit so far away?” have been a request that he sit near her, place an arm around her shoulder, hold her hand, stroke her forehead, perhaps even tend to her wounds? Might the request that he “sleep with [her] tonight” have been a request that he sleep in the cottage, albeit on the floor?

Sophie and Pine are subsequently displayed naked, limbs entangled. A new shot, a close-up of the right side of her face, displays a scab atop her eyebrow, a deeply bruised eye socket, further bruises down her cheeks, and a split lip. The muscular, broad Pine is atop Sophie and thrusting; Sophie’s split lip smiles in ecstasy and gratitude. A post-coital shot follows: she stares lovingly down at him with her facial injuries on full display, her dark eyes stare into his lucid green. Pine asks Sophie’s “real name”. Samira recounts that she changed her name to Sophie in order to “be more Western”. The power inequality is manifest on gendered, cultural, social, and physical lines: in order to advance her social position, Samira has sought to Anglicise herself and partnered with a violent (though influential) criminal (who has recently brutalised her). Her life is in danger, she is (depicted as) dark and foreign and ostensibly has no social or support network (is isolated enough to appeal to a hotel manager for help). Meanwhile, Pine is Western university-educated, a spectacle of white male athletic privilege, and has elite connections with British intelligence.

Catharine MacKinnnon argues that consent is only a meaningful option if the parties are equally powerful (174). Sophie’s extreme vulnerability renders their situations patently unequal. As MacKinnon argues “when perspective is bound up with situation, and [that] situation is unequal, whether or not a contested interaction is authoritatively considered rape comes down to whose meaning wins” (182). I do not argue that Pine rapes Sophie per se. However, the revealing of Sophie’s injuries efficiently articulates the power inequality in their situations and thus problematises a straightforward assumption of her consent. MacKinnon’s argues that rape occurs “somewhere between” the following three factors (182). First, “what the woman actually wanted” (Sophie wanted to save the lives of others (by foiling an arms deal) and not die for the breach). Second, “what she was able to express about what she wanted” (class/gender/race power dynamics may have frustrated Sophie’s ability to articulate her needs and might have motivated her sexually suggestive tenor). Third, “what the man comprehended she wanted” (Pine assumes that Sophie, like all women, sexually desire him).

Analysis of Jed and Pine’s Interactions

The injustice of Pine and Sophie’s sexual encounter finds its counterpart in Pine’s sexual encounter with Jed in the final episode of the series (“Episode Six”). Roper discovers that Jed has given a third party (Pine and his colleagues) access to his private (incriminating) files. Roper instructs his henchman to torture Jed until she identifies this third party. The henchman holds Jed by the back of her neck and dunks her head repeatedly into bathwater. The camera reveals deep bruises on her arms. Jed refuses to identify her beloved (Pine) as the ‘rat’, yet the astute Roper nevertheless surmises “you must care deeply about the person you are protecting”.

Alas, the dominant narrative must go on: Roper and Pine attend to an arms deal; the deal fails because Pine has set Roper up to appear as though he has robbed the buyers (and so on). Burr and Pine’s mission to “bring down” Roper has been completed. I keep wondering what Roper’s henchman has been doing to Jed during this “men’s business”. Alas, after Pine has completed the job, we encounter Jed again. She is in bed, her limbs entangled with Pine’s. The camera positioning and shot sequencing are almost identical to the sex scene between Pine and Sophie in “Episode One”. A medium close-up from the left reveals Pine thrusting atop Jed. Through pale moonlight the viewer discerns injures on Jed’s face and chin.

The morning after this (brief) sex scene, Pine and Jed discuss her imminent departure (“home” to New York, to be reunited with her son). Debicki’s performance is tremendously tender: her lip trembles, her voice shakes as she swallows tears. Jed is sad because she is bidding Pine farewell, and, as she verbalises to Pine, she is nervous about whether her son will “recognise her”. Does Jed’s torture also give her grounds to weep and tremble? Ever a gentleman, Pine clasps her hand, and while marching her to her taxi, we see more bruises atop her left arm.

I am also not arguing that Pine raped Jed. Yet given what Jed had endured earlier that day – torture by drowning, as commissioned and witnessed by her own partner – was sexual intercourse what she desired or needed? The visibility of Jed’s injuries throughout the sex scene marks an apotheosis of patriarchal entitlement. Might a fraternal or (even remedial) touch have been Pine’s first priority? Does Jed need a hug? Does she need ice? Had Pine been educated or socialised in a different tradition, one remotely attuned to what anyone might need after a disastrously traumatic and violent event, he might not have found penetrative sex an appropriate remedy. Pine’s absolute security in his own sexual desirability meant that he found the activity suitable, yet her injuries break my blind faith in his sexiness. I wish to raise the possibility that intercourse after this event might have compounded the violent events Jed endured that day. Contrary to the narrative’s implication, penetrative intercourse (even with Tom Hiddleston) might not heal Sophie or Jed’s wounds.


I am not a humourless feminist immune to the entertaining (and often entertainingly preposterous) dimensions of the spy and action genre. In fact, I enthusiastically await subsequent screen adaptations of le Carré’s work and the next Bond instalment. This is not a call to “cancel” a genre, text, director or writer. Biblically, a “revelation” has always instructed humans on how to live in this life. These sex scenes do not merely lay bare extreme patriarchal entitlement but might instruct directors and writers working within the genre to keep wounds, and wounded women, out of their sex scenes. I think that is a modest request. 


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Author Biography

Emma Jane Brosnan McNicol, Monash University

Emma McNicol is a Teaching Associate at Monash University's School of Media, Film & Journalism and is a doctoral candidate at Monash's School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics.