In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of John le Carre’s novel, spy-catcher George Smiley (played by a shadow-seeking Gary Oldman) operates in a London that, worn down by a generation of cold war, has become as gray, cold, and uncomfortable and univiting as any city locked up behind the Iron Curtain.
Good God, the world was ugly in 1973.
Ugly cars. Ugly clothes. People uglying themselves up with ugly fashions, hair styles, attitudes, vanities. The skies were still gray with the exhaust of cars burning leaded gas. Rooms were still foul, stale, and discolored from cigarette smoke. The sun never shone. The stars refused to come out. Nobody smiled with any real warmth.
It was a time when young men started thinking it was hip to look and act like little boys, It was a time when middle-aged men tried to look like young men by adopting the fashions of their sons but somehow still came across as older than their own fathers, stodgy, fusty, clueless, stubbornly set in their ways and Blimpishly satisfied with ideas worn out by their grandfathers’ day.
It was time when there was a lot of sex, but not much love, and what little real romance there was seemed always to come at the expense of someone outside the affair, when betrayal itself was romantic.
At any rate, that’s how 1973 appears to have appeared in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
This is odd, considering that the London and the Europe in the background of the television miniseries based on the novel---which first aired in 1979, close enough to 1973 to be considered part of the same period, while the Cold War was still being “fought” and before the money that started flowing in the 1980s cleaned and livened things up---are warmer, cleaner, jollier, more cheerfully noisier places.
On the other hand, the movie’s London of 1973 looks very much like the London in the background of the earlier episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey, produced in the late 70s, dirty, decaying, charmless, soulless, grim and relatively silent. In the first couple of seasons, even Pomeroy’s Wine Bar, Rumpole’s retreat of choice, looked cold and unwelcoming. The spies in the movie don’t even have a Pomeroy’s to retreat to. They hold their office Christmas party in an institutionally characterless function room that looks like the cafeteria in a school for wayward boys and nobody looks like they’re having fun, especially the people who most act like they’re having fun.
I don’t know which is a more accurate rendering of the look of the period. But it doesn’t matter. The effect in both versions is thematic.
In the miniseries, the point is two-fold. We’re meant to see that the world is going merrily on about its business, oblivious to the secret and dangerous work being done by George Smiley and his fellow spies and spy catchers and that that work is part of the world going on about its business. Smiley and his people are like everybody around them, ordinary Englishmen and women doing their jobs with a veddy British lack of fuss and bother. There’s a conscious de-romanticizing of the spies and their spy games. The most Bond-like character, in his being the one with the license to kill and the one with the prolific sex life, is barely more than a street thug with an expense account.
In the movie, as longtime reader C dropped a note to observe, “the year 1973 turns out to be a compelling character in own right.” Nearly thirty years spent waging the Cold War hasn’t only exhausted the spies, it’s worn out the civilian population as well. A generation has grown up and another grown old in the shadow of the Bomb. All the ugliness and decay---of infrastructure and spirit --- is due to neglect. No one wants to put money and effort into anything not directly related to defeating the Soviets, with the ironic consequence that the West has begun to look and feel like Eastern Europe in its gray decrepitude, lack of civil amenities, and general air of despondency and nihilism. The fashions are distractions, as people try not to look like what they are or how they really feel, which is anxious, pointless, impotent, and futile.
The whole of society is not just morally but aesthetically compromised by the necessity of keeping secrets from enemies, from friends who might turn into enemies or might be co-opted by enemies, or who might think we’re enemies. Paranoia and its yang self-doubt poison every relationship, with colleagues and friends, with society…with self.
In another movie, a good guy character looking searchingly into a mirror is a not liking what he sees moment. Here it’s the case he doesn’t know what he’s looking at or for.
It’s inevitable that those who, like me admire the book and relished the miniseries and its sequel, Smiley’s People, will compare the movie to them, in general, and, in particular, Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley to Alec Guinness’ brilliant and I’d have thought definitive portrayal on TV.
But Alfredson quickly establishes that as a director he’s set standards and goals for his film that are different enough from the miniseries’ (and the book’s) that it can’t be judged easily through one to one comparisons. The movie is more atmospheric, more indirect, and more allusive. He employs a far more visual form of storytelling. The miniseries and the novel are dialog driven. You have to watch the movie more intensely than listen to it. Not only are there long stretches of silence, it’s hard to remember that any character, with one notable exception, who is not George Smiley, ever says more than two words at a clip or that other characters say anything in reply. Spies spy, that is, they watch, and the movie is about watching people watch each other, which sounds dull unless you keep in mind what they are watching for---weakness, dissimulation, the mistake that opens opportunities, threat, anything including virtues that can be turned against the person being watched. Here, simply looking is an act of predation.
In this world, someone doesn’t have to fix you with a significant glare to put you on guard. He just needs to glance casually in your direction.
Which explains the symbolism of Smiley’s oversized glasses. Smiley’s main job is to look at people and his strength is that he sees everything when he does.
His best trick, however, is not being seen himself or for himself.
This is the opening Oldman exploits to differentiate his Smiley from Guinness’, with the smile-inducing effect of reminding us that Smiley didn’t have to be played by Gary Oldman or by Alec Guinness. Oldman and Guinness are playing a character, interpreted in different ways, who, never mind who’s playing him, is still himself. Like Hamlet, like Fagin, like Jane Eyre, Smiley’s a character of many qualities and actors can pick and choose what to emphasize. The performances vary but the characters remain recognizable.
Guinness emphasizes Smiley’s wounded pride.
The story---book, miniseries, movie---opens with Smiley forcibly retired from his high-ranking position at MI6, the center of the British Intelligence Service. There’s been a shake-up at the top, and Smiley, as the right-hand to the ousted chief, is told he has to go too. It’s expected that he will understand and not kick up rough. It’s taken for granted that George Smiley, loyal, self-effacing, modest, devoted to Queen and Country, will do what’s best for the service.
It turns out, though, that Smiley is tired of being taken for granted, of being ignored, of having it expected that he will not mind or at least not show that he minds. He minds. He has always minded. Suddenly, surprisingly---and he’s surprising himself---he’s going to show how much he’s minded. Guinness makes Smiley irritable, querulous, impatient with anyone who expects him to act like his old self.
But this is Smiley in retirement. No longer required by his job or his professionalism to repress his feelings, he feels free to resent both past slights and hurts and present calls that he go back to being a cipher. Even after he goes back to work to track down the Soviet mole who has burrowed his way to the heart of the secret service and has to re-adopt his old habits of reticence and diffidence, there’s the edge of complaint in his voice, as if he’s on the verge of exclaiming, “God damn it! I shouldn’t have to put up with this anymore!” And Guinness lets us see Smiley’s vanity at stake. He’s determined to prove that firing him was a mistake. He’s no longer willing to be taken for granted.
But being taken for granted, getting overlooked, having people forget he is there even while they’re looking right at him are among his chief skills as a spy. He is an expert at fading into the background. He’s there, but not there, seen but not really seen. You look at him and you can’t quite pick him out from the scenery. He’s deliberately blurry.
That’s what Oldman emphasizes, Smiley’s uncanny ability to take himself out of focus.
Oldman is constantly looking away, leaning back, turning his back on other characters and to the camera, and wandering off towards the edge of the frame. Actors are taught from the beginning of their training to “find their light.” Oldman finds his shadows.
In one of Oldman’s best scenes, Smiley recounts for his young assistant the time twenty years before when he met and interrogated Karla, Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and the spymaster assumed to be running the mole. The recounting turns into a re-enactment, with Smiley taking on both parts, and as he gets into it, Oldman seems to wrap band after band of shadow around himself, blanking out more and more of himself until there are only jagged bits and pieces of himself left in any light at all. This is where Smiley likes to work, in the near dark. It’s also how he works. So we’re not surprised to learn that while Smiley remembers Karla vividly, Karla remembers only one thing about Smiley. It happens to be a very important and damaging thing and a blow to Smiley’s pride. Guinness let us see that pride. Oldman lets us see it as he swallows it.
When he’s forced into the light and has to let others see him full on, Oldman’s face, his whole body, go perfectly still. There’s not a twitch of a lip, not the barest raising of an eyebrow, not the slightest shrug to give even the keenest observer a clue to his thoughts or his feelings. All there is to go on are his eyes, huge behind those glasses, wide-open, taking everything in.
Now, here’s the question, and I’m not in the position to answer it. How much does having seen the miniseries or read the book matter to your enjoyment of the movie? My feeling is that although Alfredson has made the story his own, he went into the project assuming, possibly even counting on, his prime audience being fans of one or the other or both. I think he wants that audience to be able to appreciate the ways the movie is different. I’m not saying that you won’t like the movie if you haven’t read the novel or watched the miniseries, but I wonder if you might have a little trouble following the plot. You won’t, I think, have trouble with the mystery, because…
Alfredson hasn’t made a mystery. In fact there is no mystery. If you don’t already know who’s the mole, if you keep in mind your movie mystery conventions you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. So if you haven’t read the book and decide to read it before you see the movie, you won’t be ruining it for yourself nor should you get mad if some blabbermouth gives it away before you get to the theater. The suspense is not in Whodunnit? but in wondering if and how the mole will be caught and at what cost and to whom.
And there’s horror and more suspense along the way as the collateral costs mount.
One of the ways the movie’s version of 1973 is ugly is that it is populated mainly by men. Women are literally pushed to the edge of the frame or forced into the background. (Fans of the book and the miniseries will be surprised that a major character in both appears only twice in the film and then in glimpses, through half-open doors.) They are only allowed center screen when they become victims of the men’s spy games. The first casualty is a pretty young mother nursing her baby in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another is a pretty young wife who makes the mistake of falling for the spy spying on the spy she’s married to. The Cold War is destructive of new life and romance, not surprisingly, but it is destructive of all relationships based on affection and loyalty and we see that most in the victimization of Connie Sacks, the lone woman we meet with any real power, responsibility, and authority within MI6.
Played with an almost irritating open-heartedness by Kathy Burke, Connie is the only character who truly talks---to other characters and to us. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to keep quiet like the rest of them. It’s that she is wounded, psychically and spiritually by multiple betrayals and in gushing words she is showing us how much she is bleeding inside.
Besides Burke, the strong supporting cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s suspiciously too boyish and dapper legman, Tom Hardy as a handsomer, more charismatic and intelligent version of the thug with a license to kill who is shocked to discover that instead of putting his life on the line, this time it’s his heart that’s in danger, and John Hurt, appearing mainly in flashbacks, as Smiley’s irascible and increasingly erratic friend and former boss, the head of MI6 who has discovered the existence of the mole just as illness has knocked the stuffing out of him and left him incapable of dealing with the threat physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
The stand-out, though, is Mark Strong, as the “scalphunter” Jim Prideaux, the one real secret agent in the group---that is, the one who, after Smiley, has come closest to leading an actually heroic life---who against his better judgment takes on one last assignment, ostensibly to get the name of the mole, but in his own mind hoping not to be told. Prideaux becomes one of the mole’s victims. He gets shot, he gets tortured, he gets shown the door when he’s finally returned home in an exchange with the Soviets that results in the deaths of several of Prideaux’s “assests.” But none of that leaves as deep or as painful a mark on him as knowing he’s been betrayed and who by. As Smiley, Oldman allows his eyes to reveal nothing. They take everything in and let nothing out. As Prideaux, Strong’s eyes reveal only one thing, heartbreak, and they let it all out.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the novel by John le Carre, directed by Tomas Alfredson, screenplay by Bridget O’Conner and Peter Straughan, starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, and Mark Strong. Now playing in theaters, including, if you live in our neck of the woods, the Downing Film Center (through January 26).