It was filmed on location in the Soviet Union, only the second American motion picture (the first being the 1988 film Red Heat) to do so before its dissolution in 1991.
Bartholomew "Barley" Scott-Blair (Sean Connery), the head of a British publishing firm, is on a business trip to Moscow. He attends a writers' retreat near Peredelkino where he speaks of an end to tensions with the West. Attentively listening is a mysterious man called "Dante" (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Dante later demands from Barley a promise to do the right thing if the opportunity arises.
A few months later, unable to locate Barley at a trade show, a beautiful young Soviet woman named Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) asks publisher Nicky Landau (Nicholas Woodeson) to give Barley an important manuscript in her possession. Landau sneaks a look at the manuscript and delivers it to British government authorities. The manuscript is a document detailing the Soviet Union's capability for waging nuclear war. An investigation reveals "Dante" is in fact renowned Soviet physicist Yakov Saveleyev and the author of the manuscript.
British intelligence officers track Barley to his holiday flat in Lisbon, Portugal and interrogate him as to how he knows Katya. They realize he is as much in the dark as they are. MI6 realizes that the manuscript is also of vital importance to the American CIA, with both agencies wanting Barley to work on their behalf. British agent Ned (James Fox) then gives Barley some fundamental training as a spy.
Barley returns to the Soviet Union to seek out Dante/Yakov and confirm he is a genuine informant. He meets with Katya, with whom he is instantly smitten. Through her, he confirms that Dante is indeed the brilliant scientist Saveleyev. Barley also denies to Katya that he is a spy.
The British run the operation through its first phase while apprising the CIA of its results. The CIA team, headed by Russell (Roy Scheider), is worried because the manuscript states that the Soviet nuclear missile programme is in complete disarray, which suggests the United States has engaged in a useless arms race.
Katya sets up a meeting with Dante, going to great lengths to avoid being followed. Barley explains that the manuscript is now in the hands of British and American authorities. Yakov feels betrayed, but Barley convinces him that the manuscript can still be published. Dante gives Barley another volume of the manuscript after Barley assures him that he's sympathetic to the scientist's cause.
Impressed by the additional volume, Russell's boss Brady (John Mahoney) and U.S. military officer Quinn (J. T. Walsh) interrogate Barley to be certain where his loyalties lie. Russell states he would help the British operation out of a true ideological belief in Glasnost, although this would not be good news to his 'customers' of the weapons industry, who need an arms race for continued prosperity.
Convinced that Dante's manuscripts are truthful, the CIA and MI6 come up with a "shopping list" of questions which is meant to extract as much strategic warfare information as Dante can provide. "Russia House" handler Ned senses something is amiss with Barley but the British-American team continues with its plans.
Barley returns to Russia and declares his love to Katya and admits he is an operative. Katya confesses that Yakov is not acting like himself and fears he may be under KGB observation or control. She gives Barley the address where Yakov will be staying when he is in Moscow.
Barley is under full British-American surveillance as he takes the shopping list to Yakov's apartment. Ned suddenly concludes that the Soviets know all about the operation and that they only let it run because they want to steal the 'shopping list' to learn exactly what the British and Americans know.
Ned is now convinced that Barley has made a deal to turn over the questions to the USSR. Russell disagrees and instructs the assignment to proceed as planned. The British-American team expects the meeting with Yakov to last a short time, but when Barley doesn't return after seven hours, Russell admits he was wrong. The team must now pretend the questions were deliberately false.
Barley, meanwhile, sends a note to Ned explaining that during a pre-arranged phone call to Katya, Dante used a code word to let her know that he had been compromised by the KGB and that her life is in danger. Barley admits he traded the shopping list to the Russians in exchange for the safety and freedom of Katya and her family. He admits that his actions might be unfair, but tells Ned, "you shouldn't open other people's letters."
Barley returns to his flat in Lisbon, where he waits for Katya and her family to begin a new life with him.Sean Connery as Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair
Michelle Pfeiffer as Katya Orlova
Roy Scheider as Russell
James Fox as Ned
John Mahoney as Brady
Michael Kitchen as Clive
J. T. Walsh as Colonel Jackson Quinn
Ken Russell as Walter
David Threlfall as Wicklow
Klaus Maria Brandauer as Dante
Mac McDonald as Bob
Nicholas Woodeson as Niki Landau
Martin Clunes as Brock
Ian McNeice as Merrydew, Embassy Rep.
Colin Stinton as Henziger
The Russia House was filmed mostly on location in Moscow and Leningrad, Russia, the first major American production to be filmed substantially in the Soviet Union. The opening sequences and the closing scenes were filmed on location in Lisbon, Portugal, and the sequence at the safe house was shot near Vancouver, British Columbia, while the remainder of the film was shot in London.
The critically acclaimed music to The Russia House was composed and conducted by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith. The score featured a mixture of Russian music and jazz to complement the nationalities and characteristics of the two main characters. The soundtrack was released 11 December 1990 through MCA Records and features seventeen tracks of score at a running time just over sixty-one minutes. The score also features Branford Marsalis on saxophone.
- "Katya" (3:57)
- "Introductions" (3:12)
- "The Conversation" (4:13)
- "Training" (2:01)
- "Katya and Barley" (2:32)
- "First Name, Yakov" (2:53)
- "Bon Voyage" (2:11)
- "The Meeting" (3:59)
- "I'm With You" (2:39)
- "Alone in the World" (4:09) - performed by Patti Austin
- "The Gift" (2:34)
- "Full Marks" (2:27)
- "Barley's Love" (3:24)
- "My Only Country" (4:34)
- "Crossing Over" (4:13)
- "The Deal" (4:09)
- "The Family Arrives" (7:38)
The Russia House currently holds a score of 73% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 15 reviews.
Hal Hinson in The Washington Post wrote: "Making a picture about the political situation in a country as much in flux as the Soviet Union can be disastrous, but the post-glasnost realities here seem plausible and up to the minute. The Russia House doesn't sweep you off your feet; it works more insidiously than that, flying in under your radar. If it is like any of its characters, it's like Katya. It's reserved, careful to declare itself but full of potent surprises. It's one of the year's best films." Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote: "At its best, The Russia House offers a rare and enthralling spectacle: the resurrection of buried hopes." Time Out less enthusiastically wrote: "Overtaken by East-West events, and with an over-optimistic ending which sets personal against political loyalty, it's still highly enjoyable, wittily written, and beautiful to behold in places, at others somehow too glossy for its own good."
Tom Stoppard's adapted screenplay was criticised by Vincent Canby in The New York Times: "There is evidence of Mr. Stoppard's wit in the dialogue, but the lines are not easily spoken, which is not to say that they are unspeakable. They are clumsy." Roger Ebert held a similar view in the Chicago Sun-Times: "What's good are the few emotional moments that break out of the weary spy formula: Connery declaring his love for Pfeiffer, or the British and Americans getting on each other's nerves. But these flashes of energy are isolated inside a screenplay that is static and boring, that drones on lifelessly through the le Carré universe, like some kind of space probe that continues to send back random information long after its mission has been accomplished."
Sean Connery was praised for his portrayal of Barley, "bluff, incorrigible, jazz-loving... his finest performance in ages." Variety wrote: "As the flawed, unreliable publisher, Connery is in top form." Peter Travers in Rolling Stone thought he captured "the 'splendid quiet' that le Carré found in Blair." Hal Hinson in The Washington Post wrote: "This may be the most complex character Connery has ever played, and without question it's one of his richest performances. Connery shows the melancholy behind Barley's pickled charm, all the wasted years and unkept promises." Desson Howe, also in The Washington Post, wrote: "Sean Connery, like Anthony Quinn, takes a role like a vitamin pill, downs it, then goes about his bighearted business of making the part his idiosyncratic own." However, he received criticism from the New York Times, who thought that the "usually magnetic Mr. Connery... is at odds with Barley, a glib, lazy sort of man who discovers himself during this adventure. Mr. Connery goes through the movie as if driving in second gear."
Michelle Pfeiffer also garnered critical plaudits for delivering "the film's most persuasive performance... Miss Pfeiffer, sporting a credible Russian accent, brings to it a no-nonsense urgency that is missing from the rest of the movie," according to The New York Times. Desson Howe in The Washington Post wrote: "As Katya, a mother who risks her love to smuggle a document and falls for a Westerner in the process, her gestures are entirely believable, her accent (at least to one set of Western ears) is quietly perfect." Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote that "Pfeiffer, who gets more subtle and incisive with each film, is incandescent as Katya." Hal Hinson in The Washington Post congratulated her for portraying a rounded character: "Her triumph goes beyond her facility with the Russian accent; other actresses could have done that. She's great at playing contradictions, at being tough yet yielding, cloaked yet open, direct yet oblique. What's she's playing, we suspect, is the great Russian game of hide-and-seek. But Pfeiffer gives it a personal dimension. Katya holds herself in check, but her wariness, one senses, is as much personal as it is cultural -- the result, perhaps, of her own secret wounds. It's one of the year's most full-blooded performances." However, Pfeiffer also had her detractors. Variety thought that her "Russian accent proves very believable but she has limited notes to play." Time Out wrote that "Pfeiffer can act, but her assumption of a role for which her pouty glamour is inappropriate - a Russian office-worker seen rubbing shoulders in the bus queues - is a jarring note."
Awards and nominations
Fred Schepisi was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.
Michelle Pfeiffer was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama, but lost to Kathy Bates in Misery (1990).
Twilight Time released The Russia House on Blu-ray on July 12, 2016.