Dec 20, 2011

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Part 2 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.

Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have done the impossible: they’ve boiled down John le Carré’s complex, nuanced, and epic 400-page novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a sleek feature film running just over two hours that still manages to retain the nuance and most of the complexity of the book. And, amazingly, they’ve done it in such a way that it moves at a brisk enough clip to never feel slow, but still allows the story enough breathing room that it never seems rushed, either. On top of all that, through some sort of unknowable alchemy, they’ve managed to retain all the most important plot points and nearly all the characters from the dense novel! Le Carré compared the process to turning a cow into an Oxo (bouillon) cube. The cube I'd compare this film to is a small box that somehow manages to hold an astounding amount of stuff inside. A box that, once unpacked, you can’t fathom how it possibly contained all those individual items, and you’re fairly sure you could never re-pack it so economically. That must have been what the process felt like for the writers and director. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, quite simply, a master class in the art of successfully adapting one medium to another.

Additionally, placed for comparison next to the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of the same material (as its makers must have known it inevitably would be), the new version serves as an example of how the same material can be faithfully—and successfully—adapted in very different ways. John Irvin’s 7-hour miniseries, penned by Arthur Hopcraft, meticulously reproduced the novel almost chapter for chapter. Scenes in the miniseries played out almost exactly how they did in the book, yet it still managed to leave out enough things to distress die-hard fans of the novel, or to devote too little time to scenes that this reader thought should have been drawn-out, Hitchcockian setpieces (like Peter Guillam’s illicit retrieval of a secret file from the Circus library). The new film takes the opposite approach. The adapters alter almost every scene, some drastically, and restructure the entire plot so that it unfolds in a completely different (generally more chronological) order... yet still manage to retain the essence of the novel in, I would say, an even purer form. This time, there were no scenes from the novel whose absence I seriously lamented, and Alfredson highlighted every moment I wanted to see highlighted—including Guillam’s sneaky file snatch.

In a nutshell, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of a mole hunt in 1970s British Intelligence, an organization known colloquially to its lifelong employees as “the Circus.” A new regime takes over following a disastrous mission in Budapest (Czechoslovakia in the book) that results in the disgraceful ouster of the Service’s longtime chief, known only as Control (John Hurt, The Osterman Weekend), and his paladin George Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight). The new chief is scowling Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, Captain America) and his trusted lieutenants are Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, Another Country) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds, Munich). When an errant “scalphunter” (slang for an itinerant field man who’s sent to do dirty work in trouble spots) named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception) contacts the Circus’s cabinet overseer, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, Body of Lies) claiming to have evidence that one of these top men is a Soviet agent, Lacon hauls Smiley out of retirement to investigate Tarr’s claims. With the aid of scalphunter boss Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock), Smiley unravels an exceptionally cunning and devious, multi-layered plot orchestrated by his unseen opposite number in Moscow Center, the mysterious Karla. What he finds will not only take a terrible toll on the Circus itself, but also on Smiley’s personal life and wellbeing.

Smiley’s investigation consists largely of interviewing different people involved in the botched Budapest mission. While le Carré tends to have characters speak in circles around the most crucial facts in their story (leaving it to the deceptively sharp Smiley to pinpoint the pertinent details, or trap his interviewees into revealing them), the encounters in the movie are generally much more straightforward. And yet the overall plot is complex enough (yes, you will have to devote your full attention to this one) that the sheer number of stories and witnesses, and the mystery of their direct relation to the central question of the identity of the mole, adds up to the same air of practiced deception as the book, where nothing is quite as it seems because all of the characters have been trained to obscure facts by second nature, to cling to secrets—often without even realizing it. So that isn’t lost, and neither is Smiley’s impressive perception, since we witness it on a more macro level as he puts all the pieces together. (You barely even notice him assembling the larger pieces when reading the book, since you’re so engrossed in the smaller minutiae.)

In the movie, things happen differently, but really just more economically. Sure, as a fan of the novel (in fact I’d probably rate it as my favorite book ever), I miss Sam Collins (whose part is given to Jerry Westerby, another character from the novel) and Fawn (whose role is mostly rolled in with Mendel’s), and I really wish that Stephen Fry had had an opportunity to play Roddy Martindale (as far as I know that was never actually mooted; I just would have liked to see it!), but it’s fairly obvious to see why those small characters were cut. Impressively, the vast majority of the book’s very large cast do make it into the movie—even some you wouldn’t expect. There’s Roach, still keeping watch for his favorite teacher, and even former Special Branch detective Mendel’s bees make an appearance. Quite a lengthy one, in fact, which was unexpected but rewarding. When Smiley and Guillam collect Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack) to join their team, they all pile into a small car together along with one of the bees. Alfredson holds the wordless scene for a surprisingly long time, as the bee buzzes around the car’s interior, much to Guillem’s annoyance, before finally making its way out a window that Smiley cracks for it. That little moment may seem like an odd one to dwell in, but it’s representative of how Alfredson lets his film breathe even with so much material to pack into a relatively short running time. The buzzing bee provides not only a moment of levity, but also nicely physicalizes the tension of the situation. There are plenty such moments in Alfredson’s film.

Other new scenes added just for the film serve similar purposes. We’re now treated to flashbacks of a Circus Christmas party, for example, which not only provides further moments of humor (many courtesy of John Hurt, whose Control gets nearly as riled up by the weakness of the punch as he does later about the traitor in his organization), but also ably stands in by itself for dozens of other flashbacks in the book which establish the key relationships between all the main players in happier times. Additionally, the Christmas party scene rewards die hard spy fans with a cameo from le Carré himself and, remarkably, a musical reference to a very obscure Eurospy film! I honestly never, ever thought I’d see George Smiley and Bill Haydon and Connie Sachs and Control singing boisterously along with Sammy Davis Jr.’s tongue-in-cheek theme song from Lindsay Shonteff’s The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World! (Writer Straughan revealed at a Q&A following the screening I attended that the idea for a Circus Christmas party came from le Carré’s recollections of real MI5 office Christmas parties that got out of hand.)

Alfredson and his team meticulously recreate Seventies London from its dire fashions and hair to the cars to the smoke-filled conference rooms of the ramshackle Circus headquarters. The movie never goes for obvious, beat-you-over-the-head Seventies pop culture shorthand, either (which is to say, we don’t see Smiley shuffling past a group of platform shoed Ziggy Stardust wannabes or see Guillam rocking a Brett Sinclair ascot—though he does kind of sport the real world equivalent), but instead focuses on the every day mundanity of the era. Alfredson’s Seventies isn’t the Seventies we see on ITC shows of the era, which were desperate to celebrate their times with the most outrageous fashions and furniture; it’s the Seventies of middle-aged civil servants who probably had zero awareness of any cultural shift going on around them as they focused on the geopolitical shifts instead, and worried about their under-heated offices or weak coffee.

The actors embody those middle-aged civil servants pretty uniformly perfectly. John Hurt makes the most of his limited scenes, capturing not only the intense paranoia and monomania of his character, but also imbuing Control with an irascible sense of humor not found in the books. Toby Jones also earns some good laughs (much needed, to relieve the overall tension—which is as palpable as the clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the Circus’s soundproof conference room) as Alleline. More than anyone else, he is le Carré’s character sprung to life from the pages of the book. Ciaran Hinds probably makes a wonderful Roy Bland, too, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It’s pretty clear that most of his scenes must have ended up on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Colin Firth delivers his usual reliable performance as the sort of upper-class, Oxbridge Englishman he could no doubt play in his sleep, but adds a lecherous touch one might not expect of Mr. Darcy or that stuttering King. David Dencik offers a very different—but equally valid—interpretation of Hungarian “Lamplighter” Toby Esterhase (the Circus’s resident expert in spy tradecraft) from the miniseries’ Bernard Hepton. In an effort to get out of the stuffy interiors that dominate Smiley’s world in the books, Alfredson relocates Smiley’s tense interview with Esterhase to an airstrip, adding an unmistakable air of menace and making for one of the movie’s best scenes.

Smiley in any incarnation is capable of such ruthless, menacing tactics when they’re called for, but Gary Oldman wears his ruthless streak on his sleeve a bit more than his predecessors. His Smiley is quiet and still put-upon, but he’s more obviously in command of most situations than Alec Guinness or James Mason. In the past, Smiley’s vulnerability has been at the forefront, making the bursts of ruthlessness surprising. With the reverse true, here, Oldman makes the most of a surprising moment of vulnerability. When he relates to Guillam the story of his first and only meeting with Karla, his lifelong nemesis, Alfredson doesn’t cut to a flashback the way the miniseries did. Instead, he moves his camera in close on Oldman, and lets the actor deliver a lengthy monologue uninterrupted. It’s not often that we watch an actor tell a story like this for such a long time on screen, and Oldman relishes the opportunity. Without the camera to do it for him, he alone must convey all the nuances of that long ago confrontation in which Smiley lost a prized cigarette lighter, inscribed to him by his wife Ann with all her love, to Karla. It’s his relationship with Ann that exposes Smiley at his most vulnerable and most human in every version of the character, and since we never see Ann’s face in this movie (like Karla), it falls to Oldman to express that himself, which he does very successfully. Alec Guinness has had too many years in which to own the role of Smiley to ever be robbed of that claim, but Oldman certainly gives him a good run for his money in a mesmerizing and Oscar-worthy performance. Like Guinness, he utterly disappears into the role. On occasion, when I deliberately took myself out of the thoroughly engaging movie in order to evaluate it as it progressed, I had to remind myself that that was Gary Oldman on screen. When you lose yourself to the film, you only see Smiley.

The younger stars also hold their ground ably against such formidable veterans. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine Peter Guillam, and the extra-textual irony of TV’s current Sherlock Holmes playing Smiley’s Watson is enjoyable as well. Unlike the character of the books and previous screen versions, this Peter Guillam is gay. That seems, out of context, to be one of the movie’s most major departures from the source material, but like all the changes it actually makes sense in the context of the film. Like so many seemingly questionable changes to the source material, it proves to be a helpful shorthand, in this case to portray the dear personal price this character pays for his career in one scene what took le Carré many vignettes in the book. Tom Hardy, too, delivers a particularly impressive performance as Ricki Tarr, a rogue in love. (Plus, he looks better in his semi-hilarious Seventies wig than he does with his current real haircut!)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not only a near-perfect adaptation; it’s also a near-perfect spy movie. Alfredson and his team have successfully interpreted John le Carré’s dense text into a movie that retains all of the book’s twists and turns, all of its themes, and nearly all of its rich and memorable characters into a film that stands on its own merits. Even if the book had never existed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be a prime example of what the serious side of the spy genre can be at its best. In the Sixties, slower-paced, more adult, more cerebral spy movies like this coexisted peacefully with the action-packed Bond movies and their imitators. Today, possibly thanks to the end of the Cold War, the Bond and Bourne side of the genre (which Alfredson acknowledges not only with his tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the Sammy Davis Jr. song, but also by arming Smiley with a Walther PPK in the movie’s climax) thrives, but the serious spy movie has languished. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (as well as TV’s Page 8) proves that it doesn’t have to. I hope this film is successful and leads not only to subsequent Smiley adaptations starring Gary Oldman, but also to a resurgence of smart, complex spy films for adult audiences—and of Cold War period pieces, for that matter. The Cold War was never the raison d'être for the books of le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Anthony Price and countless others; it was an expedient (and, then, timely) dramatic device through which to explore universal themes of loyalty and betrayal. And as Alfredson’s film proves, it still is.

The Smiley Files
Read my introduction to the character of George Smiley here.


Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Excellent review, sir, and I'm glad you enjoyed the film. As you know, I reached similar conclusions to yours in my review when the film was doing the rounds in the UK a few months back.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Louis! I just re-read your review, and you're right: our conclusions were remarkably similar. It's funny that the same things stood out to us, but I guess it makes sense since we're both coming at this film from the perspective of fans of the novel.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Indeed. Although I did read one dissenting opinion somwehere – possibly in The Spectator? – where an admirer of the novel had been made apopleptic by the film.

Bob said...

After seeing the film this afternoon, I read your wonderful review. John Le Carre should be very proud of this production. Gary Oldman's performance was outstanding with his cool analytical intelligence on display. I love the scenes when he tells Guillam "I have something I want you to do". How Smiley got there we are never sure. His cool reserve is broken in two scenes. One is the Karla meeting scene which he describes and the other is at the end when he asks a few questions to the "mole".

A wonderful film that will become a classic in the spy film genre.

Josh said...

David Cornwell & TTSS

"Maybe,I don't know, I think not, Once"


John le Carre (DCornwell)

Long regarded by even the most anti-Carre as one of the better espionage thrillers of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Intellectual, clerical, even, in nature, as a novel.

I have spent a reading youth in the pages of what Elliot described as the "wilderness of mirrors" and I can say that I have read three books that were comparable to TTSS.

Herein lies the wonder and joy of TTSS: those three books were in a spy pentateuch that came out, as a collection, around 1955.

The individual thrillers were published in the first half of the twentieth century.


The cream of one genre from one block of less than six contiguous decades is usually an acceptable indictment of the genre itself, the novel and the fears/hopes-of-the-time factor.

TTSS rests head and shoulders above almost every other idea in the spy thriller world from the latter half of this century.

"The seminal Cold War masterthriller" would be printed on a foundation of truth if you read it on one of the myriad reprints that will resurface for all of the poor souls that didn't even like to read before they saw the upcoming (at least US release) TTSS talkie.

Carre is a known quantity... he is smart enough to never admit to fancying himself a salted spy, although he was schooled, trained and briefly worked as one. He is a man of thoughts awash in his own evident and tragic mortality and thus helplessness. He is a '68er who is a student of history: this allows him to at once love and hate all that is America, Britain and the misaptly named 'Western Society' in general. Charmingly, he cannot revile the exotic, whether in folk, creed or land.

His whinings resonate with the left...his honesty in relating realities thrums soothingly with the right, and all can sit around the boma with fire-warmed shins and make the clinkety scotch compromise becuase you know old John would join you were he as base a man as you (which by his own admission he ardently is).

His writing is at least unique, at most brilliant.

He'll ramble you for a few pages, wasting your time until suddenly you don't know much about the characters, but you KNOW them, and now he's got you yearning for the facts but he's only slopping you a gruel that throbs from senses to land to minutiae to fiction to history to personal terrors and human hopes and suddenly the hunt is on because everything is game.

Few authors are as beholden to literature's almighty show & tell ("Good writers don't tell, they show").

Few authors remain as true to what they love while at once roaming the great wilderness of our globe both in story and, surely, in life.

And only le Carre has the eyebrows of a musk ox, the chizikian chin that juts him into relevance nearly as sharply as his bleeding conscience, the eyes of a reveler and the soul of a man who would risk it, all of it, to do the right thing if only he could figure out what it was.

I, myself, love him as a wordfather, a man who I once dismissed for a rambling whiner but now treasure for the instructive and purely delightful polonial tale-forger that he is.

I take this time, early before work, to execute the Golden Rule and review one of his in the ancient and infant hope that he'll someday review one of mine.


Dylan said...

Hardly any of the things that make me love the book made it into this film, and I feel completely disconnected from the almost universal praise it's gotten. It's a bit like showing up to a family reunion and discovering that a beloved aunt has somehow been replaced by a middle-aged hipster, and all anybody seems to be talking about is how clever the hipster is.

Canada said...

This is as good as has ever been seen on the small screen. The subtleties of Sir Alec Guiness' performance (he IS George Smiley) perfectly follows the current of this magnificent adaptation of the preeminent Cold War novel. Finally on DVD, this is a must buy for anyone with an appreciation of the truly great works. It stands up to an infinite amount of repeat viewings.

Kaitebon said...

goldvermilion87 here (because I don't think I can reply to an anonymous comment on my own journal)

I'm going to have to check out the movie of Call for the Dead. And I'm glad that there are other Mendel fans out there. :-)

I was very surprised [not to mention incredibly embarrassed, since those "reviews" you found are lame blatherings] to get a comment from you. But I'm glad you did, because I hadn't registered that you were writing on a blog, and not a periodical site.

I was trying to articulate why I thought the 2011 TTSS was one of the best examples of book to film adaptation insults neither medium. And I was failing spectacularly. Your review helped me to articulate it to myself and to others.

Thank you!