Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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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 them his old colleagues and one of them the mole employed by the Russians to feed disinformation to the British Intelligence Service. Contrary to what a would-be cynicist 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 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. (As with The Tree of Life, this might be one of those instances where the critique seems more damning than is intended. It's simply due to its flaws being of more interest than its strengths. Even the period setting feels in some way prosthetic, here, and the film will inevitably inform us more about filmmaking in 2011 than it will espionage in the 1970s...)

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 an entire work - or multiple works, in the case of those featuring recurring figures - the characterisation retains a richness and life of its own, so that the plot could almost be of secondary importance. What makes Tinker Tailor the novel so riveting is how the mystery of its espionage intrigue acquires double significance for Smiley, our investigating protagonist, whose wife Ann has left him following multiple infidelities, the cardinal of which being with colleague Bill Haydon.

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 is younger and more beautiful than Smiley is, and so if it is the solitude and underhandedness of his profession that has precluded romance and love, then he'd better make sure such political loyalty has 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. As such, while the film is an admirable attempt at a more serious example of its ill-served genre, it also exposes some of the medium's limits.

Previous familiarity with le Carré's plot prevents my commenting on how navigable the film makes it. But the problem, I think, isn't its story; some details have changed but the basic premise has been retained and the most significant incidents and episodes of the espionage elements are intact and in the right place. It's demanding, true, but it's not indecipherable.

The trouble is (to elude would-be charges of purism) that in condensing the plot, Straughan and O'Connor have made perhaps unavoidable shifts in emphasis that don't quite give the story its double urgency. Too much has been reduced to subtext, and as a result, the film feels like a strained interpretation of compelling material. Reducing the four main suspects to secondary roles means that the final revelation - of whom Karla's mole is - lacks the double-edged oomph that imbued a sense of triumph and loss in the novel.

What makes the novel still relevant today is the deep ambivalence with which it views the Cold War in general and the intrinsically underhanded role intelligence services played in it, as an underground branch assisting the imperialist expansions demanded by capitalism at all costs, whereby its 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 the means to emphasise them, the film doesn't so much seem subtle as it does removed and irrelevant. When the outed mole tells Smiley his betrayal was "an aesthetic one not 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. The ensemble cast is formidable - only Tom Hardy seems miscast - but the familiarity of their faces adds a strain: 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. Controlled seems the prevailing critical consensus; there's an unfussy, quiet smoothness to the way scenes unfold. As I suggested last week with Jane Eyre, though, a ballsier running time - one not "caught between the sophisticatedly artsy and the permissibly marketable" - might have allowed for more liberties. As it is, for my money, Alfredson goes 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; editorially (working with Dino Jonsäter), Alfredson seems inconsistent at best. Critics are keen to note the naturalism with which the Swedish director's Scandinavian temperament imbues the British landscape with a melancholy and claustrophobia, but the key thing missing for me is a sense of lingering time, which would only have heightened its atmosphere.

As a directorial alternative, I'd have suggested Corneliu Porumboiu, whose Police, Adjective accomplishes - like much of the Romanian new wave, I'm told - a strange and knowing sense of temporality alongside its riveting materialism. Maybe he can direct "Bond 24".

Addendum, September 19, 2011

I caught the film again today. A revised draft of the above has been posted to Front Row Reviews. Some short points here...

In retrospect, it seems upon a first viewing, familiarity with both the novel and the 1979 production proved distracting; today, knowing more what to expect, I was in a better position - more relaxed, or whatever - to meet the film on its own terms.

It could still afford a longer running time. A shot of classified files being elevated from floor to floor in the same building during the opening credits recalls that sequence at the opening of Zodiac, with the letters getting delivered; that film runs at a comfortably paced two-hours-and-a-half-plus, and there's no reason why this film couldn't be. Still, it's remarkably well condensed.

The direction is inconsistent, though. Alfredson's tendency to go in too close too soon has already been noted, but as I've written in the revised review, he also seems to miss opportunities. That moment during the final flashback, when Prideaux realises he is being deceived by noticing his closeted lover is holding two glasses, is more obscure than subtle.

For all its controlled pace and methodic rhythm, the film still feels over-cut, considering a lot of it is simply conversation. I would have preferred more two-shots, and more time to be given to the mid-shots and close-ups with which they unfold - if, as I've suggested, the camera needs to be close at all.

I'd welcome a sequel. In fact, if The Honourable Schoolboy - whose protagonist Gerry Westerby is present in the Tinker Tailor film (played by Stephen Graham) after assuming the role of another character from the novel entirely - or Smiley's People aren't made, this production will seem even more of an oddity. It deserves a follow-up. Appropriate cast members intact, of course.

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