Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 16, 2011 7:21 pm 
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Spies left out in the cold

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an extraordinarily accomplished but ultimately unsatisfying adaptation of the greatest spy novel of the greatest spy novelist, John Le Carré.

The story begins like this. A British rogue agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy of Inception), finds through a love affair with the wife of a Moscow Center intelligence officer that there may be a Soviet infiltrator or "mole," subsequently code-named "Gerald," inside the "Circus" (British intelligence) at its very highest level. Tarr goes undercover to alert his superior, Peter Guillam (the young Benedict Cumberbatch). Guillam tells Oliver Lacon (TV regular Simon McBurney), the Civil Service officer in charge of intel. Lacon recalls to duty George Smiley (Gary Oldman), former Deputy Head of Service, now forcibly retired, to ferret out this mole, working with Guillam without the Circus knowing, including its current head, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) -- or his deputies, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Eserhase (David Dencik). Guillam and Smiley can trust no one, and must equally hide their distrust from all.

Smiley sees as due to the mole the failure of Operation Testify, in Czechoslovakia, in which agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), trying to recruit an informant, was shot in the back and tortured. Prideaux was repudiated and fired, and the failure of Operation Testify caused the downfall of Control, the former head of the Circus (John Hurt), who has subsequently died. Smiley interviews Prideaux and finds Testify was more complex than it appeared and indeed had much to do with a mole. And Smiley's investigation of a Soviet informant code-named "Merlin" leads to suspicions of possible complicity with the Soviets by top Circus officers, needed to protect their source -- or is it just complicity? The plot grows more complicated. Not for nothing is this thought of as a spy thriller for smart people, for adults. This new film version has impeccable work by the crew, much attention to mood and detail from the director, Tomas Alfredson, and a star-studded cast. According to the review aggregators this new film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor has met with almost unmitigated critical acclaim (Rotton Tomatoes 83, Metacritic 87). Too bad it is no fun, lacks a truly English feel, and (worst of all) is almost impossible to follow.

I admired the director's previous work, the very distinctive and earthy Swedish teenage vampire movie, Let the Right One In. But this is a totally different ball game. Ultimately this story is too complicated for anything but a mini-series; you can't cram all this stuff into a single feature film. And something key is missing from the lead. Despite a performance of remarkable rigor, in making George Smiley buttoned down, Gary Oldman has failed to give him the tortured soul that was essential to his character and that Alec Guinness provided most memorably for the 1979 BBC TV miniseries version. As Hoberman has said, comparing this as one inevitably does to the three-times-as-long BBC version, this one is "more concise, but what's lost is George's pathos." Alfredson and the writers have produced an ensemble piece. They have not lingered closely on Smiley's sensibility. All the extended shots of Gary Oldman's face, even extreme closeups of him peering through his large eyeglasses, never give us a single glimpse into his soul. But while that soul is guarded and mysterious in the novel, it is not a blank. Our clear perception of Smilley's sadness and sense of defeat contributes strongly to the book's overwhelming power. That's lacking here -- as it most definitely was not in Smiley as magnificently played by Alec Guinness the 1979 TV miniseries.

The oddity of this adaptation is evident from the outset, when it's stated with textbook clarity the theme or "problem" of the story: that evidence has emerged of a mole in British intelligence at the highest level, a poison that must be ferreted out. There it is: what we need to know. But then follow ten minutes of meandering in which no excitement at all is engendered. And as the film proceeds, it seems unable to navigate a unifying path between the Cold War events in Eastern Europe that it chronicles, the personalities and conflicts and suspicions at the top of MI6, and the peculiar sufferings, professional and personal, of the story's sad gray hero, George Smiley. It's all there: the writers, Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (who are relatively new names), have composed a neat summary of all the book's complex contents. But they have not given them a suspenseful momentum and they have not made them matter emotionally.

In this same vein, James Berardinelli wrote that "Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be the best possible movie version of the story, but it illustrates that the big screen is not the ideal medium for a tale of this complexity." Roger Ebert likewise noted that he enjoyed the performances and the picture of the "tawdry" spy world, but became increasingly aware that he "didn't always follow all the allusions and connections." In fact, despite having read the book and poured closely over the BBC miniseries, I was very often quite lost, and when one is lost, one may be vaguely impressed -- with the foggy gray images, indoors and out, for instance, which give Alfredson's film a distinctive appearance -- but one can't very well be moved.

What I most remember in the TV version, counterbalancing the occasional tense and sometimes violent forays out into the "cold," were the claustrophobic and knowing sequences that take place at headquarters, the strong Circus personalities at war with each other -- Percy, Bill, Roy, Toby, and the rest -- who nonetheless seemed very much a part of a very British team. I did not get that here, and in fact I felt that the actors, some of them already very high profile, such as Colin Firth (perhaps the British film actor best known to Americans today), John Hurt (nearly as well known), the gloomy-faced Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (as often seen), Toby Jones (now more and more familiar, here putting on a patently fake Scottish accent), Mark Strong (a favorite blockbuster villain nowadays), along with the brilliantly talented and so often ill used Gary Oldman, finally back in a role truly worthy of his skill as Smiley -- all these well-known actors seem almost to be playing in their own separate films. Alfredson may not have been the right one to whip them into a team.

But it's never hard to see why critics are impressed by the new Tinker, Tailor. There's the distinctive look, the good period detail (the cars, the lapels, the teacups), the creditable production values, a number of vigorous newcomers in the cast whom I haven't mentioned, and above all the great story rich in betrayal and doubt, for which only John Le Carré deserves ultimate credit but which the writers do dramatize with considerable clarity and deftness, adding some interesting new changes in emphasis from the earlier adaptation that help this one become at once authentic and relevant.

But when you come out of a film not having followed well and not having been truly moved, it has not worked. Though the action is all there, what tends to get lost is the story's true and ultimate theme -- the moral uncertainty, the Cold War sense that all has been corrupted, the lingering elegiac melancholy that lives and breathes through Le Carré's triumphant creation, George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Soldier, Spy, 127 mins., debuted at Venice 5 Sept. 2011. After half a dozen other festivals, in opened in US cinemas (limited release) 9 Dec. 2011.

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