The Russia House (film)

The Russia House is a 1990 American Eastmancolor spy film directed by Fred Schepisi. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay based on John le Carré's novel of the same name. The film stars Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, and Klaus Maria Brandauer, filmed in Technovision.

The Russia House
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Schepisi
Produced byPaul Maslansky
Neil Canton
Fred Schepisi
Screenplay byTom Stoppard
Based onThe Russia House
1989 novel
by John le Carré
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyIan Baker
Edited byBeth Jochem Besterveld
Peter Honess
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • December 25, 1990 (1990-12-25)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$21.8 million[1]
Box office$22,998,000 (USA)

It was filmed on location in the Soviet Union, only the second American motion picture (the first being the 1988 film Red Heat)[2] to do so before its dissolution in 1991.


Bartholomew "Barley" Scott-Blair (Sean Connery), the head of a British publishing firm, arrives in Moscow on business. At a writers' retreat near Peredelkino, he speaks of an end to tensions with the West, heard by the mysterious "Dante" (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who demands Barley promise to do the right thing if the opportunity arises.

A few months later, unable to locate Barley at a trade show, a young Soviet named Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) asks publisher Nicky Landau (Nicholas Woodeson) to give Barley a manuscript. Landau sneaks a look 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 renowned Soviet physicist Yakov Saveleyev, author of the manuscript.

British intelligence officers track Barley to his holiday flat in Lisbon and interrogate him about his ties to Katya, but realizes he knows as little as they do. MI6 realizes the manuscript is also of vital importance to the CIA, with both agencies seeking Barley to work on their behalf. British agent Ned (James Fox) gives Barley some fundamental training as a spy.

Barley returns to the Soviet Union to seek out Dante and confirm he is a genuine informant. He meets with Katya and is instantly smitten. Through her, he confirms that Dante is indeed Saveleyev, and denies to Katya that he is a spy.

The British run the operation through its first phase while appraising the CIA of its results. The CIA team, headed by Russell (Roy Scheider), is concerned at the manuscript's description of the Soviet nuclear missile programme in complete disarray, suggests the United States has engaged in a pointless arms race.

Katya sets up a meeting with Yakov, going to great lengths to avoid being followed. Barley explains that the manuscript is in the hands of British and American authorities. Yakov feels betrayed, but Barley convinces him the manuscript can still be published, and is given another volume of the manuscript after assuring Yakov he is 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 of his loyalties. 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' in the weapons industry, who need an arms race for continued prosperity.

Convinced the manuscripts are truthful, the CIA and MI6 create a "shopping list" of questions 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 its plans.

Barley returns to the Soviet Union and declares his love to Katya, admitting 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 Yakov's address in Moscow.

Under full British-American surveillance, Barley takes the shopping list to Yakov's apartment. Ned suddenly concludes that the Soviets know all about the operation and will steal the list to learn what the British and Americans know, and is convinced that Barley has made a deal to turn over the questions to the KGB. Russell disagrees, and instructs the mission proceed as planned. The meeting with Yakov is expected to be brief, but after seven hours, Russell admits he was wrong. The team must now pretend the questions were deliberately false.

Barley sends a note to Ned explaining that during a pre-arranged phone call to Katya, Dante used a code word to let her know he had been compromised by the KGB and that her life is in danger. Barley admits he traded the shopping list to the Soviets in exchange for the safety of Katya and her family. He admits 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.



The Russia House was filmed mostly on location in Moscow and Leningrad,[3] the second major American production to be filmed substantially in the Soviet Union.[2] 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 Russia House
Film score by
Released11 December 1990
Professional ratings
Review scores
Filmtracks link

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. There were four main featured soloists, with only one receiving a card on the opening titles - Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone. Other soloists include a duduk player (an Armenian double reed instrument), pianist Mike Lang and double bassist John Patitucci. A soundtrack album has been released twice. The first edition was released as a film tie in on 11 December 1990 through MCA Records and features 17 tracks of score (including one piece of diegetic (source) music at a running time just over 61 minutes.

  1. "Katya" (3:57)
  2. "Introductions" (3:12)
  3. "The Conversation" (4:13)
  4. "Training" (2:01)
  5. "Katya and Barley" (2:32)
  6. "First Name, Yakov" (2:53)
  7. "Bon Voyage" (2:11)
  8. "The Meeting" (3:59)
  9. "I'm With You" (2:39)
  10. "Alone in the World" (4:09) - performed by Patti Austin
  11. "The Gift" (2:34)
  12. "Full Marks" (2:27)
  13. "Barley's Love" (3:24)
  14. "My Only Country" (4:34)
  15. "Crossing Over" (4:13)
  16. "The Deal" (4:09)
  17. "The Family Arrives" (7:38)

An expanded CD album of just under 76 minutes was released in December 2017 by Quartet Records,[4] which was remastered by Mike Matessino featuring a number of cues not on the original MCA album, one track of three unused cues and an alternate. The booklet included in the package featured an in depth look at the film and music, by British saxophonist/film music historian/author Dirk Wickenden, incorporating new comments from Mike Lang. Dirk Wickenden dedicated his liner notes to his saxophonist granddad, George Ernest Tallent (1906 - 1976).[5]

  1. Katya (4:03)
  2. First Meeting (2:05) - previously unreleased
  3. The Package / London House / We’ve Got Him (1:37) - unused in the film, previously unreleased
  4. Introductions (3:16)
  5. The Conversation (4:17)
  6. Portrait of Katya (0:49) - previously unreleased
  7. Training (2:05)
  8. Katya and Barley (2:35)
  9. Who Is He? (1:32) - previously unreleased
  10. First Name, Yakov (2:57)
  11. All Alone (0:37) - previously unreleased
  12. Bon Voyage (2:15)
  13. The Meeting (4:02)
  14. I'm With You (What Is This Thing Called Love?) (2:42)
  15. The Lie Detector (2:17) - previously unreleased
  16. The Gift (2:38)
  17. Full Marks (2:32)
  18. Barley's Love (3:30)
  19. My Only Country (4:40)
  20. Crossing Over (4:17)
  21. The Cemetery (1:17) - previously unreleased
  22. The Deal (4:14)
  23. The Family Arrives (7:43)
  24. Alone in the World (Vocal by Patti Austin) (4:14)
  25. Barley's Love (Film Version) (3:32) - previously unreleased


The Russia House currently holds a score of 76% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 17 reviews.[6]

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."[7] Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote: "At its best, The Russia House offers a rare and enthralling spectacle: the resurrection of buried hopes."[8] 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."[9]

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."[10] 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."[11]

Sean Connery was praised for his portrayal of Barley, "bluff, incorrigible, jazz-loving... his finest performance in ages."[9] Variety wrote: "As the flawed, unreliable publisher, Connery is in top form."[2] Peter Travers in Rolling Stone thought he captured "the 'splendid quiet' that le Carré found in Blair."[8] 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."[7] 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."[12] 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."[10]

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,"[10] 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."[12] Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote that "Pfeiffer, who gets more subtle and incisive with each film, is incandescent as Katya."[8] 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."[7] However, Pfeiffer also had her detractors. Variety thought that her "Russian accent proves very believable but she has limited notes to play."[2] 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."[9]

Awards and nominations

Fred Schepisi was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.[13][14]

Michelle Pfeiffer was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama, but lost to Kathy Bates in Misery (1990).[14]

Home Video Release: Blu-ray

Twilight Time released The Russia House on Blu-ray on July 12, 2016.[15] The package included booklet notes by Julie Kirgo. The extras were a contemporary documentary from the film's release and an isolated score (non diegetic) and source (diegetic) music track but no commentary. The film had been released on DVD before the Blu-ray version.


  2. "The Russia House Review". January 1, 1990. Retrieved 2009-11-17.
  3. "The Russia House (1990) - Filming locations". IMDB. Retrieved 2009-11-16.
  4. The Russia House soundtrack review at Retrieved 2011-03-18.
  6. "The Russia House Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2009-11-17.
  7. Hinson, Hal (December 21, 1990). "'The Russia House' (R)".
  8. Travers, Peter (January 10, 1991). "The Russia House : Review : Rolling Stone". Rolling Stone.
  9. "The Russia House Review - Film - Time Out London". Retrieved 2009-11-17.
  10. Canby, Vincent (December 19, 1990). "Movie Review - The Russia House".
  11. Ebert, Roger (December 21, 1990). "The Russia House ::".
  12. Howe, Desson (December 21, 1990). "'The Russia House' (R)".
  13. "Berlinale: 1991 Programme". Retrieved 2011-03-26.
  14. "The Russia House (1990) - Awards". IMDB. Retrieved 2009-11-16.
  15. "Russia House, The (Blu-ray)". Twilight Time Movies.
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