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Tinker Tailor Soldier zzzzzz………….

 

Smiley?

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfresdon

Saturated with atmosphere: so much so that narrative, character and suspense struggle to keep their heads above water till eventually going down with all hands about half way through, leaving at least me disappointed and unsatisfied. This despite some superb, darkly evocative cinematography (Hoyt van Hoytema), impeccable design (Maria Djurkovic) and Art direction (Tom Brown); plus much needed musical enlivenment from Alberto Iglesias.

I’ve seen this twice now: mostly because I was so disappointed first time and then given the curiously universal critical praise it has received. Sadly, and I was really looking forward to this one, my first impressions were borne out.

Le Carré is a superb writer, greatly under-rated simply because of his dedication to the ‘spy’ genre instead of writing what some are pleased to call ‘literature’. But his chosen context is so rich in ethical ambiguity; conflicting personal, social and political beliefs, that one wonders what these high-minded, superior critics consider is missing from Le Carré’s world of loyalty and betrayal, conviction and cynicism, idealism and disillusionment.

That said, cinematic adaptations of books have a chequered history: most commonly offending Goldman’s (William) Law – that a film cannot be true to the book; but must be true to the spirit of the book. The principle underlying Goldman’s dictum rests upon the profound difference in form between film and novel. This poses greater problems with some writers than others: and Le Carré is a tough nut to crack. His meticulous development of character and nuanced moral context is gradual and cumulative in its effect. Similarly his carefully structured plots are irreducibly and rightly driven by character rather than the other way round.

Tinker Tailor therefore would always present a major challenge to anyone trying to film it. It has Le Carré’s most enigmatic character, George Smiley, centre stage but never more elusive; and an intricately layered plot assuming some familiarity with the hotbed of conflicting ego’s, ambition and Public School superiority that apparently dominated the world of MI5 – the ‘Circus’ of which Le Carré had personal experience.

The rightly praised 1979 BBC version with Alec Guinness took the obvious route: 7 episodes with a 5 hour running time offered space within which to replicate Le Carré’s assiduous establishment of character and unwinding of plot. Indeed so outstanding was this version, even on re-showing years later, that it was a surprise to hear of the current release.

So the dilemma becomes acute: how do you compress plot and character successfully into 127 minutes? It is so clear that Alfredson hasn’t that one is tempted to say you can’t. For me the only method with a chance of resolving this dilemma would be to return to the golden age of film noir and use the off-screen narrator to maintain pace and story. For some reason many film purists, just like the literary elite above, regard the film narrator with disdain. That seems to me a pretty dumb attitude: one thing among many, the great noir directors knew peerlesslyhow to do, was to drive narratives forward with pace, suspense and excitement.

‘Pace, suspense and excitement’: all crucially and culpably missing from Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor. His pace is not only funereally slow to the point of tedium at times; but it also plods metronomically on with no variation or cadence which are the heartbeats of suspense. I say culpably because with the time challenge outlined above Alfredson constantly indulges himself with slow tracks, zooms and pans, over-held close-ups on not merely impassive, but frankly vacant faces. It’s all very pretty and atmospheric but again and again I found myself distractedly thinking – “oh for God sake get on with it man”. One can only stay attentive for a certain number of slow zooms to a glass of scotch, a cigarette lighter (even a significant one) or a file, a ventilator and so on and so on ad inf. Add to this, self-consciously sparse, almost Pinteresque dialogue and even if you know the plot you’re having to scramble to keep up. And awake.

One’s criticism of actors and performance must therefore be qualified by the misconceived Directorial approach to the film. That said: for me Oldman’s performance is as one-paced as the film itself: both in delivery and action. From the trailer and the way he looks, Oldman seems a promising Smiley – until he says or does anything. Portentous delivery of the most prosaic of lines with little or no variation in tone or inflection, instead of conveying a sense of inner gravitas, makes Oldman’s Smiley look bored much of the time. Alec Guinness’s Smiley expressed the profound world-weariness of a man who had seen too much of the worst of humanity in the worst of situations, but who knew there was a crucial duty required which perhaps only he could fulfil, if our best qualities were to be protected and preserved. Some of the time Oldman looks as if he’d just like to get back to finishing the Times crossword.

Good film actors can without a word of dialogue or even perceptible movement, convey a sense of things going onbehind the eyes: thinking, feeling, deliberating etc. Great film actors can even somehow, wordlessly and movelessly, convey a sense of what they are thinking. Of course they utilise context, setting and narrative position to assist them, but they draw us into their character, the film and the story. Guinness did this with Smiley: we felt his world-weariness and disappointments; shared his frustrations and setbacks; and empathised with his sense of unavoidable duty. I’m afraid Oldman is just blank: nothing happening; and though the externals of his acting are impeccable, he looks just right, he articulates the lines well – we remain uninvolved and detached from his Smiley from beginning to end. To be fair Oldman has done some very good work so perhaps it’s just a question of good actor: wrong role. Which is why talk of Gary Oldman and an Oscar for this role strikes me as ludicrous.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there: the cabal of four characters who form the core of the film: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) have so little time to say or do anything that they remain mere sketches with no sense of conspiratorial involvement at all. The Alleline of the book is powerful, pompous, overwhelmingly ambitious and territorial and this is germane to the narrative. Alfredson’s Alleline is therefore totally misconceived and as a result Toby Jones hopelessly miscast. Both Bland and Esterhase are vital characters in the book: here they either just look long and meaningfully at the camera or break down to cue. Colin Firth, never bad, is here at his least convincing and Benedict Cumberbatch is mis-directed into an unconvincing gay Peter Guillam, George’s strong right arm.

By far the best performance in the film, perhaps not surprisingly is John Hurt as Control: the domineering, cantankerous, intemperate outgoing Head of the Circus who first suspects there is a Russian mole amongst the men around him. Tom Hardy is also effective as louche, insubordinate field operative Ricky Tarr through whom information about the mole in the Circus first flows. For me Alfredson missed the most promising approach of all: the one character in the Smiley novels, critical to their narrative drive, is disappointingly under-developed – Smiley’s wife Anne. Known to his enemy’s as his ‘weak point’, intermittently unfaithful; love for and faithfulness to Anne lie at the heart of Smiley’s raison d’etre. Although Le Carré uses this drive in developing the Smiley character he doesn’t write Anne with any conviction. In fact he is another artist (I offered the same observation recently about Terrence Malik) who just doesn’t do women: or at least strong, sexually active, intimate women. He’s good with brainy older spinstery types like Connie Sachs (nice little cameo by Kathy Burke by the way) but stays aloof from the very feelings he uses to explore George’s motivation. This offered a real opportunity to add something which Alfredson has ignored.

Tinker Tailor therefore flatters to deceive: its trailer is better than the film itself; again including shots not in the final film – I do wish they’d stop this disreputable practice – but for its striking atmosphere and however imperfect storytelling, it is worth seeing. As I seem to be saying too often nowadays – this Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not up to its own publicity or the possibilities provided by the source material.

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