Watched this again, felt I had to write a bit about it. It became a little too long for the Movie thread so I thought I put it in its place...
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Why bother ennobling this film with another review after I already wrote something - some ‘it’s okay-ish’ rubbish - in 2012?
Why indeed? Well, we shall come to that.
Firstly, I have to warn everybody about spoilers, plenty of. It is simply not possible to talk about this story (book, BBC series, film) without going deeper into the matter. So everybody who has yet to read the book - stop right here and do so. All others I assume will be familiar with the tale and well aware of the mole's identity so I can't spoil anything for them.
Fine. So why indeed do I bother coming back to this after a full three years?
I recently reread the novel - for the fourth or fifth time, I cannot tell exactly - after not touching it (seriously, I mean) for perhaps 10 or 15 years. To this day it's one of le Carré's best works, rich with character and atmosphere and undoubtedly a book that tested the limits of espionage fiction and found them wanting. This is not just a genre work; it's roman à clef; it's a piece of the author's personal tragicomedy translated to the page with a - according to people in-the-know - entirely made-up lingo that sounds nonetheless more authentic than perhaps their real argot would to the innocent ears of the public. And it is, with very little action and few clearly defined antagonists, also a remarkably strong and tense thriller that is hard to forget, not for its gruesome violence but for its authentic characters.
After I finished the book I thought I could just as well go a little further down memory lane and once more take a look at the BBC series I hadn't seen for 35 years. It was this outstanding piece of British television that pointed me to le Carré in the first place. And, unlike most other things from the past that we remember more fondly than they actually were back in the day, this one is still one of the very best adaptations of a novel I've ever seen. Its script is as close to a one-to-one adaptation as you can get, with lots of dialogue taken verbatim from the page. It is, consequently, also a six-hour play as it really only leaves out the most minor parts like the subplot of Guillam's trouble with his girlfriend. So, as adaptations go, particularly for the big screen, this one plays in its own league and judging the film against the series would be very unfair.
Yet of course I couldn't withstand the temptation to watch the 2011 film right after, if only to see how it would hold up. You see, curiously I already had forgotten a big deal of this vehicle. Which is very odd since it supposedly is close enough to the book. In 2012 I thought so myself.
Well, what a dog's breakfast this film really is.
Mind you, I am able to appreciate it as a good film on its own merits, which it is. Or rather would be if it wasn’t for the source material. It's not bad as such, only as adaptation. Its actors are amongst the best, no doubt there. I can see how it particularly appeals to hipsters (Look, this was the bloody seventies! How spectacularly bleak! Gross!) and cineastes (The camera angles! And this light! And what a wonderful intelligent script!) and the general cinema audience (Cumberbatch! Firth! Hinds! Strong! Hardy! Wowgasm!).
But on seeing it for the second time now I was severely underwhelmed. No, let me rephrase that. It is a solid film, yet I can’t bring myself to like it.
Let's take a closer look at what Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is supposed to be about. There is a mole inside the Circus, it is one of five suspects from the higher echelons. Control, head of service, hopes to get the name from a defector during a privately mounted operation. The wheels come off this op, Control gets sacked. Smiley, the fifth suspect, likewise. Remain the other four suspects in office, one of them becoming head-of-service. Now turns up irrefutable proof that there is indeed a leak and Smiley is called back by the Whitehall mandarins to identify the mole from the outside. Smiley talks to various people, active and retired, learns of the mole’s activities, sets a trap and - voila! - the mole is revealed.
You can elaborate on this in various ways but the sequence of events as such remains intact, even though all three, book, TV series and film mix up the chronology and large parts of the story are told in flashbacks by its protagonists. Actual events in the Now take only a couple of days.
So there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of story, how come it does work at all? Because it all depends on the characters we meet during Smiley’s investigation. And also on what we learn about his own past. Because actually this is not a story about Smiley vs. the traitor ‘Gerald’ (however ‘Gerald’ is sold to us as the villain because he had an affair with Smiley’s wife). It’s a duel over the decades, but between Smiley and Karla, Moscow Centre’s top spy handler. This is what the story is about.
Now let’s see how the film tries to sell us the tale.
Oh, Karla isn’t even there. His name appears several times but that is all. We are told how Smiley met him. Only the significance is entirely lost because for some strange reason it was decided that here, in this crucial matter, telling would be enough for the audience. Maybe add to the mystery of Karla. Or just avoid confusing them, whatever.
What we get in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - The Spectacular Drab Seventies Movie! is something very different from the book. Not because they changed much about the events, it’s still basically the same plot. But its characters are nearly all strangers to their literary counterparts, with the possible exception of Control. All others were altered - some slightly, some heavily - to better fit the script’s need for easily digestible characters. And by changing them the film betrayed the story’s integrity.
Smiley is converted from the veteran agent to Control’s gofer, an intelligence bureaucrat turned into Whitehall furniture. Mind you, Smiley isn’t supposed to be impressive, neither in the book nor in his screen incarnation. But he’s supposed to be competent and sharp. At no point in the film do I get this impression from Oldman’s Smiley. I cannot see him think.
What I can see is his longing for his absent wife, an authentic emotion of Smiley’s, yet hardly his main motif and the driving force behind his vigour to catch ‘Gerald’. But in this film it is. Because in this film Ann is all Smiley really cares for. So much so he nearly falters when she’s unexpectedly back at his Bywater Street house. This is very touching and meaningful, no doubt. Sadly, it’s also neither Smiley nor the story of Tinker, Tailor.
There is mention of Smiley’s meeting with Karla back in the fifties. We are told this on occasion of a drinking session with Guillam, because we need a clichéd reason for Smiley to ‘open up’. Real men don’t talk, you know. And if they do they have to be drunk and it has to be with a half-empty bottle in the frame to better symbolise the emptiness they feel in their hearts. Yes, it’s really an intelligent script. For a given value of intelligence.
Talking about symbolism, there is this awfully smart idea to show the Circus as a grey monolith building - not entirely unlike the Kaaba; it’s all about what you believe in, get it? - behind a front of London’s fake facades, a double entendre without losing a single word, tres chic. Maybe just a little bit too smart for its own sake if you ask me. But okay, they had to give this some visual dynamic, there was a film to be shot, a period piece because the seventies are the dernier cri, everybody who is somebody in the industry says so, and you can’t just go with material that looks like the leftovers of the BBC’s cutting room floor of 1976. Here it’s show-don’t-tell; nobody cares how it fits with the story if it just looks good.
Actually, it’s not that bad an idea, a lesser spy-themed film - say Kingsman or some vehicle in the same vein - might profit from just this kind of ‘depth’. But Tinker, Tailor isn’t that kind of story and doesn’t need visual Viagra to stand its ground. Tinker, Tailor, above all else, is about the characters.
All the more baffling how the script keeps tempering with them as if they were only there to meet the script’s needs, namely to cram the story into the two hours the studio allowed Alfredson for his venture. It was clear from the go there would have to be changes. Strange how many of them only served obscure vanities and how few actually helped with telling the story.
By no means, not in a million years, is Mark Strong Jim Prideaux. Mind you, he’s fine in the Budapest scenes, blends in well with the drab Eastern Bloc scenery and of course he’s also a ruthless enough character for an agent, either hero or villain; that’s not the problem. The problem is he would never be called ‘Rhino’ by his pupils.
Here adding the book’s scene with the owl - which the TV series omitted - doesn’t make him more convincing. For shock value Strong kills the owl - we don’t get to see it, the camera cuts to the boys - in front of the class. In the book he brought it outside and broke its neck there, Prideaux’s favourite technique, and with some significance. Sadly, again, we have to leave this significance behind, time is running.
Killing the animal merely serves to make Strong’s Prideaux a creepier character. But that is what he’s supposed to be in this film, a creep. A creep who even displays the trophy of his killing in his classroom, in case the boys - or rather we, the audience - might forget they have a killer teacher. Jim ‘Norman Bates’ Prideaux. It’s also a nice sideswipe on Harry Potter; after all the self-styled intelligentsia these days abhors Potter, so to get the hipster vote behind this film they had to make some kind of statement in that direction; very sensible if perhaps a bit crude in the execution.
It’s safe to say the concept of subtlety is not always pursued with success in Alfredson’s film. Just take how the Haydon/Prideaux dynamic is approached, Prideaux exchanging long soulful glances of secret longing with Firth’s Bill Haydon at the Circus’ hideous version of Rocky Horror Picture Show, which we are meant to swallow is what they mount as Christmas party. That one was an funny idea, turning the Circus into its own travesty, easily the best one of the whole film, if perhaps unintentional.
But the point here is driven home with a sledge hammer - after mentioning numerous times how ‘close’ Haydon and Prideaux are; after repeatedly showing us this prop of two laughing middle-aged actors in Rugby shirts rejuvenated by photoshop - so even the most mentally challenged viewer gets it: these two are an item.
Of course they are, they are English! And were together at Sarrat! They have to be gay, all the world knows what happens at these sinful English public schools! (Insert further clichéd nonsense here…)
No, Sarrat is not a public school…
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for a second for me, Firth and Strong just don’t come across as the closet couple, no matter how long they are shown looking at each other with bedroom eyes. It actually might have worked better, in terms of characterisation, if they hadn’t been shown together at all.
But it doesn’t stop there, further victims of the script’s attempts to improve on its necessary brevity with ‘fresh and bold’ characterisation are already lining up in the distance. We need not talk about Hinds’ Roy Bland, who is hardly more than a prop. That’s what Bland is in the book, so here, for once, the script stays largely faithful to the source. Albeit at the cost of wasting Hinds talent on a sum total of about ten sentences, dregs from the cutting room floor included.
What amounts of time and effort they saved with Bland apparently was supposed to be invested in Alleline. In the book he is a conceited, self-important and incompetent functionary inside the secret apparat, a career bureaucrat with nothing but his own old-boys-network to keep him sailing Whitehall’s backwaters, but all the surer of his own prominence for it. In other times he might run for a party career; for now he is just a complacent fool holding pompous speeches to his helpless underlings.
How to give this fine specimen of the British society, backbone of a corpus that, according to the great philosopher Margaret Thatcher, doesn’t exist, further contour in a screenplay desperately tight with time and space? Yes, let’s turn him into a Rumpelstiltskin gnome who’s listening in on his own team’s conversations.
What kind of effect the writers (O’Connor/Straughan) hoped to achieve by this addition - other than giving the audience yet one more clichéd espionage image, the sweating audio-voyeur hearing his own shame - is not clear. It’s neither fish nor fowl, achieves nothing beyond making me wish Hinds had gotten the part of Alleline. On top of it, it’s also contradicting a main point of the plot, for it’s not Alleline eavesdropping on his staff, it’s ‘Gerald’ who spiked the whole Circus HQ with Moscow bugs.
I admit, on first glance this doesn’t appear to be a crucial change, just making one unpleasant character a bit more so, all in the line of setting up a story full of complicated interactions for a two-dimensional medium with its own set of requirements. But with Alleline it’s different, he’s one of two characters in the book honestly shocked by the revelations which will cost him his career. He didn’t see it coming because his head was up to his shoulders up his own behind, enormously proud and full of himself, a sense of misguided entitlement dripping from every pore of his civil servant soul.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t know who the mole was - if there really was a mole, that is. He knew well enough it would have to be Haydon. But Alleline’s true gospel is ‘It cannot be what must not be!’ A dictum he forced onto the entire Circus under his reign. Perhaps the biggest damage ‘Gerald’ could do to British intelligence work was to pave this man the road to office.
Alleline simply believed as long as he ignored reality there could not be a traitor in the upper crust of his profession. Goes to show how incompetent Alleline as an intelligence officer indeed was. Though he would perhaps perfectly fit in our times.
Now showing him spying on his own people undermines the entire character. It implies he is indeed suspecting, is already looking for signs of faltering loyalty in the rank and file of his subordinates. Wrong, so wrong.
The other character truly, seriously shattered and furious about Gerald’s identity is Peter Guillam, but for entirely different reasons. Guillam is a capable and resourceful agent, knows the field work and accepts the general possibility of a mole just as well as he’s aware of the backstabbing office politics. Good at his work, loyal, discrete, he was one of the few staffers ‘Gerald’ wasn’t able to force out of the Circus altogether, so he was transferred to one of the minor outposts to waste his talent on fruitless small fry stuff.
But Guillam isn’t glum about his career, not yet. In spite of all the erosion of spirits and disillusion caused by his work he remains a romantic at heart, loves his duty and looks up to the legends of his organisation. Smiley is one of them. Bill Haydon is the other, a personal hero and a role model for the younger man.
In the book Peter Guillam is important as the main character we side with, for he is undoubtedly on the ‘good’, the ‘right’ side. His reaction to uncovering Bill Haydon as the traitor mirrors our - and possibly le Carré’s - feelings, a righteous fury, an outrage about deceit and betrayal.
The film now sets out to change this character into a vaguely dandyish figure, swooned at - hopelessly - by female bit players. It’s not so much that Cumberbatch doesn’t fit the role, he’s perhaps closer to le Carré’s description than Michael Jayston was. But to give Cumberbatch’s Guillam some kind of ‘drama’ he had to be gay now. Because apparently there are millions of housewives - male and female - in America and the world over who pray each night to their Internet gods for Cumberbatch to finally play a gay role.
And this is where the wheels come off this ‘period’ vehicle, when they not only try to stuff too much substance into too little room, which is bad enough. But they also set out to infuse post-millennium sensibilities into what is meant to happen almost two generations earlier. This doesn’t work, it just screams ‘Look how modern we are!’ There is no reason for it other than to give Cumberbatch a few frames he can cry in. He can do that very fine, I would just wish for a better reason for him to show off.
Of course, it’s also supposed to tell us how informed Smiley is (it’s clearly not common knowledge at a time when homosexuality was still a crime) and how he trusts Guillam. Only, we already know he trusts him because he specifically asks for his help and Smiley only just told him about his Karla encounter. So chances are if Smiley knows about Guillam’s ‘secret’ he isn’t the only one. The Circus may be a service in ruins, but it’s not yet completely devoid of all capable forces.
Also, this little insert of drama is completely superfluous to the plot. In the film Smiley advises Guillam to take care of his matters, Guillam goes to what we must assume is his flat (no, there weren’t that many gay couples living together openly in 1970s London but we need one here), there is a guy, they talk, the guy packs his bags, Guillam cries. And that’s the end of it, nobody in the film tries to lean on Guillam, nobody even mentions his private life beyond this point. Whereas the ‘closeness’ of Haydon and Prideaux on the other hand is mentioned frequently by numerous characters, making Smiley’s advice seem pointless.
The problem here is not that Guillam is turned into a gay character, the problem is that it has no impact on the story whatsoever. It’s perfectly beside the point, only there to cater to our current day sensitivities because homosexuality, sexual harassment and discrimination are topical today. It sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn’t add to either plot or character. If anything it dumbs Guillam down because if he really needs Smiley to tell him, after years in the Circus, that he’s vulnerable because of his relationship - well, then he’s dumber than Alleline.
Of course the Guillam example is not the only case where the film can’t withstand the temptation to drop the period mask and give the 2011 audience what they want. Smiley tells of his meeting with Karla in a Delhi prison and we learn that Karla was tortured on American orders. By now we are far too familiar with torturing Americans so we don’t even notice how we’re fed another trite cliché here, only there to keep us comfortable and meet our expectations. It’s the same with the artfully splattered Thesinger and Irina’s absurd and pointless liquidation in front of Prideaux, they are merely there to keep an often bestialised and blunted audience happy with at least a little ultraviolence to smack their lips on.
Sure, these are also attempts to sprinkle a little visual dynamic over what would otherwise be mostly talking heads. And for the most part middle-aged males with tired eyes at that, not the typical material to guarantee box office success.
But every so often the film goes just that one step too far and loses its characters on the way. So Smiley threatens to send Toby Esterhase back to Eastern-Bloc-Hungary, fittingly on what seems to be a private airstrip with a plane just landing behind them, ready to take Toby back to his former home. Apart from the fact that this is not necessary since Esterhase gives Smiley the required information, making the plane and the airstrip setting pure window dressing for the script, this also ignores that Smiley is - at the point of Tinker, Tailor - still far from being this ruthless a bastard. Years later, in Smiley’s People he would arrive at a point where making such a threat would become possible - and necessary - for him. But it’s a long way till he gets there and seeing him so reckless here means the character’s development in possible further entries is effectively thrown out of the window at this point.
Yet Tinker, Tailor has one thing going for it, the one element the film handles far better than its TV pendant. The love story between Tarr and Irina is done just fine, convincing in the acting, the photography and the dialogue. I wish the rest of the film had satisfied me just as much. Well, there also was the bee in the car…
Finally, since we’re watching a spy film there’s got to be a sniper rifle and a person to be shot with it. In this case it’s Haydon meeting his end at the hands of Jim Prideaux, his former friend and - so we were told often enough though I find it impossible to believe with these two - also his former lover.
It’s sad that the film takes this route out of its story instead of Prideaux meeting Haydon at arms length. After all it robs us of a final meeting scene, maybe some dialogue that would have made their alleged affair believable at least in the last minute of the film.
But then again, what could they have said? Hasn’t everything been said already by this point? Even the obvious, time and again?
Just a minute earlier Haydon himself tells Smiley that he, Smiley, knew all along the mole was him. Yes, indeed. Smiley knew, the others knew, damn near anybody in this story did. So why, please, does Haydon have to state the obvious? Is it really possible this fact has escaped anybody in the audience?
I’m downright amazed how lauded this film was at its time. As I said before, it’s nowhere near a bad film. But for me it got all of its characters and most of their motivation wrong. Which for me in turn leads to a failure as an adaptation on an epic scale. Somewhere I’ve read, not all that long ago, that there probably will not be a follow-up, no adaptation of The Honourable Schoolboy or Smiley’s People.
I have to admit I feel a little relieved about it.