John le Carre #1: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
On Thursday, September 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) started a series of films based on the novels of John le Carre, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. The series, which runs until October 3 (next Wednesday) includes just about all of the feature film versions of his novels (except, for some reason, The Russia House). Over the next few days, I’ll be writing about my three favorite films in the series (as well as The Russia House, since I find its absence inexplicable; if nothing else, it’s better than The Looking Glass War, the worst film version of a le Carre novel), starting with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As with my reviews of the first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies, this is a review I wrote for CAPRA (Cinematic Amateur PRess Association). I’ve added pictures and edited it slightly for grammar, but it remains mostly unchanged.
In Three Days of the Condor, John Houseman and Cliff Robertson, two high-ranking members of the CIA, are briefly reminiscing about how they entered the intelligence field in the first place, with Houseman (who in the film is British) talking about how he started out a decade after World War I, or as he refers to it, “The Great War”. When Robertson asks if he misses the action from when he was younger, Houseman responds, “I miss that kind of clarity”. Most people tend to look back with nostalgia on the past in general, and today, when it comes to this age of uncertainty we all live under due to the War on Terror waged both here (with all of the terror threats, however real or imagined they are) and abroad, there has been a tendency to look back at what was thought of as the “clarity” of the Cold War, when at least, so the thinking goes, we knew who the enemy was. And the ever-looming threat of the Bomb, while keeping those in charge as well as the populace they governed in a state of alert, paradoxically created a sense of security in knowing as long as no one was going to press the button, things wouldn’t get too out of hand. Even forgetting, for the moment, the terror movement as we know it actually started in the 60’s and 70’s (under the flag of revolutionaries), we should remember the time of the Cold War wasn’t a time of “clarity”, but was just as murky as it is today. It was a world where you never really knew who to trust, and was a world of betrayal. Few people captured this Cold War world as well as John le Carre, particularly in his novels involving George Smiley, the antithesis of James Bond; or, as le Carre put it, one of the meek who do not inherit the earth. Wearing ill-fitting clothes, glasses that he constantly needs to polish, and moving at a slow gait due to his weight, Smiley might seem more fit to be a schoolmaster or an accountant rather than a spy (Smiley describes himself in The Secret Pilgrim – the last le Carre novel to feature Smiley – as “a fat man caught between the pudding and the port). But he actually uses this to his advantage, especially the way he’s able to question people and harp on the details most would forget. This would seem to make him an unlikely movie hero, but in this new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carre’s most celebrated Smiley novel, director Tomas Alfredson and star Gary Oldman do justice to the character and the story.
As with the 1979 miniseries (more on that below), and unlike the novel, we start with a brief prologue. Control (John Hurt), the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to here, as in the novel and miniseries, as “The Circus”, as it’s headquartered at Cambridge Circus), is certain there’s a mole, or double agent, high up in British Intelligence. And he asks Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a “scalphunter” (jargon for those who did the dirty deeds in espionage), to go to Budapest to meet with a general who can give Prideaux the name of the mole. Unfortunately, Prideaux finds out it’s a trap, and he’s shot and presumed dead. This forces Control’s ouster (he dies soon after), as well as the ouster of his deputy, Smiley (Oldman). Some time later, however, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), from the Ministry, comes to Smiley, confirming he also has heard there’s a mole inside the Circus (both this and the fact Control was investigating on his own comes as a complete surprise to Smiley), and since Smiley is out of it and therefore under the radar, he’s in a perfect position to investigate.
The title of the movie (and book) comes from the old nursery rhyme “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief”. Control assigns parts of the rhyme as code names for the people he suspects. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who wants Control’s job, is Tinker, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who runs the London division, is Tailor, Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Haydon’s second-in-command, is Soldier, and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), who runs the “lamplighters” (security division), is Poor Man (Control skips over Sailor because it’s too similar to Tailor, and Rich Man for obvious reasons; Smiley is known as Beggar Man). Smiley tries to retrace Control’s steps, as well as interview Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a scalphunter who basically got the ball rolling – he had fallen in love with Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a spy posing as a businessman’s wife, and before she was captured by the KGB, she told Tarr there was a mole in the Circus; he was the one who called Lacon – and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), the former researcher at the Circus until she was retired along with Smiley and Control. She had pointed out a Russian named Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy) who might have been the mole’s handler, but no one wanted to hear it. With the help of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), his protege, and Lacon to an extent, Smiley tries to track the mole, as well as confront two of the ghosts in his past; Ann, his unfaithful wife, and Karla, the Soviet spy whom Smiley tried (and failed) to recruit in his younger days, and whom he suspects is behind the mole.
Alfredson, Oldman, and co-writers Bridget O’Connor (who died after filming had wrapped) and Peter Straughan are confronting ghosts of their own with this movie. For one, the miniseries is not only well-acclaimed, it also took five-and-a-half hours to tell its story (the British DVD runs longer), while this movie clocks in at 127 minutes, so there’s quite a bit that had to be cut. For another, while there have been a number of actors to play the role of George Smiley – among them James Mason (though the character had a different name) in A Deadly Affair, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Call for the Dead, Denholm Elliot in the made-for-TV version of A Murder of Quality, and Rupert Davies in The Spy who Came In from the Cold – none are as memorable as Alec Guinness, who played the role in both the miniseries of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (the novel The Honourable Schoolboy actually came out between those novels, but wasn’t filmed due to budget constraints). Still, I think everyone involved has done a good job of making the movie stand on its own. For starters, Alfredson and production designer Maria Djurkovic make the building where the Circus is located an integral part of the story, with its retro look, the dumbwaiter that passes files from floor to floor, and the rooms that look as if they’re under the magnifying glass the entire time. Also, Alfredson and the screenwriters make some smart decisions in cutting the story down; in the movie, you never see Ann Smiley or Karla except in brief glimpses, which again adds to the idea of Smiley chasing their ghosts. The film also adds a Christmas party scene not in the novel or miniseries, but conveys, in flashback scenes, the relationship between several characters (as well as some dark humor; the characters sing along to a Soviet anthem at one point), as well as hints of things to come. Alfredson and the writers also bring out the sexual undercurrents only hinted at in the novel and miniseries; making the relationship between Ricki and Irina more passionate (in the novel and miniseries, he also has a wife and daughter, but that’s dropped here), having Connie tell George she’s feeling “under-fucked” (le Carre allegedly heard W.H. Auden tell him this in real life), making Guillam’s womanizing (more spelled out in the novel than in the miniseries) a cover for something else, and, of course, the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux. All of this helps add to the layers of deception going on.
Most importantly, however, Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan, even in having to cut things down, preserve the elliptical nature of le Carre’s storytelling, making it even more so. This has frustrated many viewers (film professor and blogger David Bordwell, in his excellent essay on the film, starts out by talking about the man behind him in the theater who didn’t “get” the movie) and even some critics. First of all, I do believe as long as you keep in mind the spine of the film – there’s a mole in the Secret Service, and Smiley is being brought out of retirement to stop him – it shouldn’t be too hard to follow. More to the point, though, this elliptical style is a perfect illustration of just how murky the Cold War was – how there were, again, layers of deception before you could finally get to the truth, how you never really knew who your friends or enemies were, and how you kept secrets even from your friends if it served your purpose (as Smiley does to Tarr in a crucial scene). All of that is what spying is about, not about big operations that conclude with gun battles, and much as I’ve enjoyed movies like the Bourne series that are about operations (though those movies are more grave and less morally certain than, say, the James Bond movies), le Carre’s novels and this movie serve as a bracing alternative to that. And while this is made more explicit in the novel (it was inspired by Kim Philby, perhaps the biggest traitor the British SIS ever had, and whom le Carre resented because they came from the same background and because le Carre was one of the people Philby betrayed), we see how spying in Britain, and even America, is often a game for the privileged class that ends up wreaking havoc for everyone else.
One disadvantage the movie has in relation to the miniseries, of course, is the miniseries allowed the actors time to develop the characters, whereas the actors in the movie have to compete with the memories of people who have read the book and/or seen the miniseries and paint the characters in quick brush strokes for those who haven’t done either. Another reason why the movie works so well is because of how well the actors are able to do this. Hurt is perfect as Control, a man being eaten away not only by the toll his job has taken on him, but also the desire to stop the forces trying to put him out to pasture. Strong, who usually plays bad guys, is excellent going against type here, and while he doesn’t have as much to work with as Ian Bannen did in his excellent performance in the miniseries, he’s able to distill both the character’s gentleness in dealing with Bill Roach (William Haddock), the outcast boy at the boarding school Prideaux ends up teaching at and with whom he bonds, and yet the steeliness that remains in him. Jones doesn’t have the same privileged nature Michael Aldridge brought to Alleline, but he goes the other way, playing someone who grabs at the inside because of how long he’s been forced to watch from the outside. Conversely, Hinds suggests more of being to the manor born than the rumpled nature Terrence Rigby brought to the working-class Roy Bland, but Hinds is able to play the character’s resentment all the same. Speaking of resentment, Dencik is less bitter and brittle than Bernard Hepton was as Esterhase, but is able to play up Esterhase’s outsider feeling, which fuels his bitterness. Hardy captures Tarr’s dangerous and romantic nature, but he’s also more mournful than Hywel Bennett was in the miniseries, which works here. Next to Oldman, whom I’ll get to in a minute, Firth has the toughest job here – next to Guinness, Ian Richardson gave the most indelible performance in the original – but if he doesn’t quite measure up, Firth does get Haydon’s cutting wit as well as his reserves of resentment and regret. And even if his character didn’t turn out to be as important here as he was in the miniseries, Cumberbatch feels just right as Guillam, someone completely professional but with his own dark currents underneath.
But it all turns on Oldman, and he delivers in spades. In the past, Oldman has been known for his over-the-top performances in films like True Romance, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, and I’ve enjoyed many of those immensely. And even though he’s mostly tried as of late to play more characters who are essentially good if somewhat troubled, as with the Harry Potter movies and the recent Batman movies, he brings that same intensity, which also works. His Smiley is more of an active character on the face of it than Guinness’ was (we see him go swimming, for example, and taking walks), but Oldman brings the same watchfulness, patience and stillness Guinness did in his performance, and is even subtle in bringing out Smiley’s vulnerability. Much has been made of the scene where Guillam, Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack), another retired Secret Service agent who now works as a beekeeper, and Smiley are in a car and a bee starts buzzing around, and while Guillam tries to swat it and Mendel tries to catch it, Smiley simply lets it go. It’s a great scene, but even better, for me, is the scene where Smiley is telling Guillam about interrogating Karla, but for one second, you don’t know if he’s talking about Karla or Ann, two ghosts he’s forever chasing. Oldman plays that perfectly, without pathos. And he uses Smiley’s glasses (a key to the character) as a way of showing both Smiley’s gently probing nature and a shield he puts around himself (we can barely see his eyes at times). In short, even if you’re a fan of the original miniseries and novel, as I am, this movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stands brilliantly on its own.