Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Based on the novel by John le Carré
I’ve got a mild genre problem here. Don’t worry it’s not infectious. I can’t stand the spy stories of Len Deighton, who with enormous difficulty, I could half -follow, and dislike John le Carré considerably more. It’s incomprehensible guff to me. I never got far enough into Smiley’s People on TV to get absorbed. A columnist recently admitted the same, bought the DVD to try and couldn’t understand it at all. Then he realized he’d started with DVD2 instead of DVD 1. Reversing it didn’t help. Basically, the clues as to the identity of the evil double mole at the heart of everything are not set in the story. You know that every character is at least a double-crosser, with triple, quadruple and quintuple-crossing thrown in for good measure. None of them are likeable, so you don’t really care which one turns out to be baddie-in-chief. They’re all candidates.
The film is clearer, obviously, but even then there are flashbacks, and enigmatic half-seen bits of plot. The reason to go and see it is the cast, which is the cream of the British acting profession, and it’s beautifully filmed. But it’s slow, and measured. This is not an action spy film.
It all took a bit of working out. Gary Oldman is the central figure, George Smiley. I got that. Then John Hurt is the old superseded “control” who was sacked and I think killed himself, but the flash of a hospital bed was too quick for me to be sure. Then there are a load of bastards at the top. Colin Firth must be delighted to be playing a bastard called Bill for a change. Toby Jones is Percy, who turns out to have the surname Alleline which they go on about a lot. I’d wondered if it was him, and the trusty IMdB confirms it. Ciaran Hinds is Bland, the other top bastard.
Then there are the next generation who get to go off and do stuff rather than sit in the boardroom being bastards. Mark Strong is Prideaux who goes off on a mission to Budapest in 1973 and gets shot, then tortured. He comes back to England and gets a job in a boarding school who seem to think nothing of a teacher living in a small caravan in the drive, dressed in a vest, drinking vodka. I guess it was the 1970s. Oh, by the way, the entire secret service consists of serious alcoholics. This is no barrier to linguistic ability, and they can all drop into Russian at will, singing happily in Russian at their flashback Christmas party, where Santa Claus is dressed as Joe Stalin. Or they speak Hungarian. Or Turkish. I don’t think whisky and vodka are the secret key to mastering languages, even if you think you’re speaking better after a few swigs. Don’t try this at home.
Another who gets to do stuff, in Istanbul this time (not to be clichéd about locations for cold war spy stories) is Tom Hardy, playing Ricky Tarr. I thought all the way through he was playing Ricky Farr who ran the Isle of Wight Festivals and wondered why a real name had crept in. The third younger one is Peter, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is Smiley’s sidekick. And loyal. I think.
Then the small character parts go to excellent comedy actors, not doing comedy. Kathy Burke is a prematurely-retired spook, and doesn’t get screwed, mauled or killed, which is unusual for a female role in this sort of film. Roger Lloyd-Pack has a small role as ex-police officer (or whatever) helping Smiley and Pete. I think.
You have to pick up a lot in glances here, tears there. Bill had seduced Smiley’s wife, but in the end it turns out that was just to avert the suspicions of Smiley who would be too fair to suspect a chap just because he was screwing his wife. So he bends over backwards not to suspect him. We find out that others may be bending in another direction. Prideaux and Bill (Firth) also had something going. I think. A Little Bitty Tear lets that one down.
The steady speed is a welcome change from all action car chase shoot em-ups. I think there are no more than four gunshots in the entire film, all with chilling effect. The accidental shooting of a bystander breastfeeding her baby in Budapest is truly horrific. But the bangs are all saved for effect. Every person on the set is a brilliant actor. I did successfully understand enough in the end to enjoy the movie thoroughly, and I didn’t care about not guessing the baddie because I didn’t even try to. It won’t pull me into the TV series or the books. I will go for the film sequel (the books were a trilogy) if they do one. The sequel starts with a clean slate, as the end has Smiley taking over the empty boardroom.
ADDENDUM … AFTER WATCHING THE DVD
I usually enjoy films more the second time and watched it on DVD a few months later. The two people with me hadn’t seen it before. Dark room, large screen, 5.1 system … and it didn’t work. it seemed more convoluted, much too slow. We got impatient with it. None of us enjoyed it. That can happen with “difficult” films … you need to have committed the evening, paid money, and be sitting in a cinema to focus your concentration. It’s a phenomenon I’ve known before. I was really pleased I’d rented the DVD … I’d contemplated buying it. I also thought it was cut differently, perhaps to change the rating. in the cinema, the accidental shooting of the mother had major impact … you barely noticed it on the DVD.