As John le Carré has managed to adapt in recent years to a publishing world more consciously catered to film adaptations – naturally, it’s where the money is – so that the likes of The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man have raised the integrity of the otherwise disposable airport novel, it’s interesting that following the 2005 film version of Gardener, the latest adaptation of the author is a return to one of his more intricate stories, 1974’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
It’s over 30 years now since the BBC first aired the seven-part, six-hour mini-series starring Alec Guinness as fallibly unassuming and bespectacled George Smiley, the spy employed to spy on the spies – all of whom are old colleagues and one of whom is a mole employed by the Russians to feed disinformation to the British intelligence service. Contrary to what would-be cynics might suspect, renewed interest in that production seems to be as a result of the critical buzz this film adaptation, scripted by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, is receiving. In other words, this isn’t a cash-in on some burst of popularity for the espionage genre.
So the decision to adapt and condense the novel into a feature film without any profitable precedent is interesting, and it makes the final result something of a curiosity.
One of the chief strengths of le Carré as a novelist is the brevity with which he gets to a character’s distinctive traits, and how over the course of a work the characterisation retains a richness and life of its own, alongside the main plot strand. What makes Tinker Tailor the novel so riveting is how the mystery of its espionage intrigue acquires double significance for protagonist Smiley, who investigates the former colleagues suspected of political betrayal all the while remembering that his wife Ann has had an affair with one of them.
Smiley is driven by an undying inward determination to preserve some kind of professional pride in the wake of personal inadequacy, refusing to be bested by his Russian counterpart – known only by the codename Karla – because that kind of failure would only lend a finality to a long list of dissatisfactions. Ann (who, like Karla, remains unseen throughout the film) is younger and more beautiful than Smiley is, and so if it is the solitude and duplicity of his profession that have precluded romance and love, then he’d better make sure his political loyalties have been worth it.
Critics seem to be downplaying and even apologising for comparing this adaptation to the 1979 serial. But the point of reference is as inevitable as it is ultimately unfavourable precisely because, whatever else the film has to offer – a stellar cast, a certain “professionalism”, an aesthetic “solidity” – it simply cannot provide the running time an equally nuanced interpretation demands. And even at just over two-hours, the film could have afforded a ballsier length. That said, the film is an admirable attempt at a more serious example of its ill-served genre, intriguing enough to invite repeat viewings and detailed enough to reward them.
Indeed, the expository but important information revealed before and during the opening credits montage sets the tone and pace for the film ahead: it’s brisk and demanding, its moments of otherwise subtlety forever on the verge of obscurity – how many will catch the stuffed owl in the shadowy background of one scene and recognise it as the same one that interrupted an earlier scene, for instance?
In condensing the plot, Straughan and O’Connor have made perhaps unavoidable shifts in emphasis that don’t quite give the story its immediate double urgency. Too much has been reduced to subtext, and as a result, the film feels like a strained interpretation of compelling material. Reducing Smiley’s four main suspects – played by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik – to virtually secondary roles means that the final revelation, of which one is Karla’s mole, lacks the double-edged oomph that imbued a sense of both triumph and loss in the novel. To their credit, the four actors give it their best shot despite having less to play with than they should: Jones is well cast as the passive aggressive suck-up unintentionally out of his depth, whereas Firth supplies apt charm to a character whose intentions are (deliberately) never quite accounted for; Hinds and Dencik have little to do.
What makes the novel still relevant today is the deep ambivalence with which it views its contemporary milieu, not just the Cold War in general but the intrinsically underhanded role intelligence services played in it – in the absence of military conflict or trench warfare, they are, as one character points out, “the front line”. Espionage is an underground branch assisting the imperialist expansions demanded by capitalism at all costs, whose own recruits – graduates of the upper echelons of society (Smiley went to Oxford, unlike the real-life Cambridge Spies) – were undone by political compromisism with, and defection to, an enemy whose territories seemed culturally closer to them than their own homes. (A reference is made in the film to “fighting communism”, but in truth the mutually inclusive fog binding east and west is the fact that Stalinism had more in common with capitalism than defenders of the latter liked to let on.)
These elements haven’t been omitted by any stretch; it’s just that without a longer running time with which to emphasise them, the film doesn’t so much seem subtle as it does removed and safely distanced. When the eventually-outed mole tells Smiley his betrayal was “an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one”, its significance is lost because we haven’t spent enough time with him as a character before this point, which makes empathy difficult. Likewise, a wider picture is only suggested by broad shorthands.
Further strains are added by a cast that is too familiar and even too handsome – though with source material that resists sensationalism, it’s understandable why bankable stars were brought on board. Indeed, employing actors with relatively lower status might have drawn less attention to the fact that none of these characters, save for Smiley – an excellent Gary Oldman – are given enough screen time.
There’s a sobriety but not quite an austerity to Tomas Alfredson‘s direction. While there’s a controlled, unfussy smoothness to the way scenes unfold, the direction seems inconsistent. If Hoyte van Hoytema‘s cinematography lends a pleasing palette of browns and greys to the immaculate production design, which proves victorious over a slight sense of prosthetic period evocation, at times Alfredson seems to go in too close to the action too soon, so that a lot of the time these talented actors aren’t really required to do much in terms of bodily gestures.
At other times, Alfredson doesn’t seem to emphasise gestures enough. Note the film’s final flashback, to a Christmas work do at which Mark Strong‘s Jim Prideaux shares a look with a male colleague and secret lover; viewers must to be alert and quick enough to note that Prideaux’s object of desire holds not one glass, but two, the second embodying all of the character’s deceptions at once; as a visual summary, that kind of scene needs to work on a first viewing. As such, the affection and disappointment with which Prideaux looks at the multiple traitor might lack the directorial emphasis it requires, leading immediately as it does into the film’s closing montage, whose revised triumphalism is made irresistible even to purists by Julio Iglesias‘s “La Mer”, an excellent conclusion that surely calls for an adaptation now of Smiley’s People.
This review, written after a second viewing of the film, is re-worked from an original review written after one viewing of the film. You can read Michael Pattison’s original review here.