Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Here there be spoilers

As a proclaimed aficionado of both John le Carre’s 1972 novel and the original mini-series adaptation, I approached this new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with both a genuine enthusiasm and a dose of salts. I knew very well that many of the things I singularly love about John Irvin’s 1979 TV version would probably not make the cut for a feature film version, and tried to prepare myself for that, and hope for a good, hard nugget of drizzle-cloaked spy suspense. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was no small challenge to turn into a feature film with its dense web of motives and jargon underlying an already knotty, dark, surprisingly tragic portrait of Cold War espionage. And the fact that, whilst it’s certainly a spy thriller, it’s also a deeply eccentric one, a study in situational dynamics, political decay, and most intimately, of character expressed through a prism of entangled bureaucracy and physical, emotional, and moral danger. And yet I was still completely unprepared for this barely competent, eviscerated, essentially factotum adaptation of a well-proven hit, which has been drawing obscenely good reviews from all quarters recently. I suppose most of that can be laid at the door of the innate intelligence of Le Carre’s original tale, which Alfredson’s version does its best to leech away but still occasionally shines through, the endless array of high-class Brit actors in the cast, and lingering affection for Alfredson’s overrated, sluggish, but interesting Let the Right One In (2008). But almost every single aesthetic decision here, from Alfredson’s endlessly, although virtually never effectively, mobile camera, to Alberto Yglesias’ godawful pseudo-jazz music score, made me finally want to throttle the creative team of this film. 

The story essentials are the same: sometime in the mid ‘70s, aging spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called in, one year after getting the boot from MI6’s central command, dubbed “The Circus”, to investigate when supposedly rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) makes contact with The Circus’ bureaucrat overlord Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney). When Tarr raises the spectre of there being possibly a Soviet mole in the ranks, Smiley studies the circumstances of Tarr’s forced exile, and the events which originally resulted in his own sacking, along with The Circus’ old boss Control (John Hurt), who subsequently died. Control had dispatched one of his most trusted men, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), on a mission to Hungary in a hopeful attempt to get information on the mole that turned into a disaster. Now Smiley has to dig into this past whilst not alerting The Circus’ new regime, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and backed up by a cadre including glib gay-blade Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), shifty Hungarian Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and bland Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), who have become extremely defensive about their new source of information deep in Soviet circles. Smiley begins to realise that this source is actually a carefully constructed plot of his Soviet opposite dubbed Karla, having manoeuvred incompetents into high positions in The Circus around his own double agent.

The first twenty-odd minutes are the worst, as Alfredson rushes to condense incidents that don’t even take place in the book, but which rather form background events, into a bite-sized whirl of exposition. The new version of the incident that sees Prideaux shot and captured in Eastern Europe, has been changed from rural Czechoslovakia to Hungary, apparently to get in some scenes in a nicely tourist board-friendly corner of Budapest, and is not one-fifteenth as eerie as the sequence in Irvin’s. Alfredson traipses in with the first of many pieces of violent hype he’ll employ, having a woman with a baby get accidentally shot as the commie agents try to capture Prideaux, in trying to sex up a tale that was originally distinguished by its thorough refusal to indulge the usual spy thriller tropes and stunts. Much of the problem lies in the adaptation, which perversely tries to leave as much of the original’s dense story intact as possible, whilst hacking away the things that count on the human level. For some reason, Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan shift the significant meeting Smiley has with Tarr from the outset, where Tarr’s personal testimony and recounted experience forces Lacon into action, to the middle, so that the reason why Smiley’s investigation is given the go-ahead is rendered bewilderingly obscure. Alfredson handles the first glimpses Tarr has of Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the Russian agent and wife to a blowhard Soviet bigwig whom Tarr investigated in Istanbul and who first alerted him to the mole’s presence, with an initial adroitness. He plays on his capacity, as displayed in Let The Right One In, to evoke a voyeur’s vantage of forbidden insight, as Tarr, doing surveillance on the Russians, sees Irina being abused by her husband after she finds him screwing another woman, from the privileged distance of his lookout. But Alfredson then fumbles the glimpses of their affair so badly, including an excruciatingly badly shot sex scene and hollowed-out characterisations, that I began to wonder if I would make it to the end of the film at all. Tarr here is allowed to retain his faintly romantic dignity as a low-rent James Bond, a privilege Le Carre originally denied him in making it clear Tarr was a self-deluding bigamist. Irina’s repressed religious urges are likewise sidestepped: here she’s just a standard issue femme fatale. 

Tarr and Irina aren’t the only characters left stripped of the bitterly realistic inner lives Le Carre tried to give them, as Oldman’s Smiley here has no depth left at all, stalking through the proceedings as a dried-up remnant trailing his sexual betrayal by his wife Ann (here not seen except as a shadowy symbolic figure, itself a preciously stupid touch) and a low-key disillusion which only shows through when he narrates the story of his meeting with Karla. That scene subtly distorts the equivalent in the book and series, as Alfredson, Oldman, and the screenwriters strain to make it their commentary on the story, loading the line “We’ve both spent our lives studying the flaw’s in each-other’s systems” with a macrocosmic meaning, as if to make up for excising just about all the rest of the story’s political commentary (much of which was inevitably dated and yet might still have been tweaked for our own time when so many of us are again angry at our political and economic systems). Alfredson avoids a flashback here, substituting instead the directorial equivalent of putting his finger to his lips and whispering, “Shhh, everybody, Gary’s finally going to act now,” as Oldman begins to address the chair opposite him as if it's filled by the shade of his nemesis. Another interesting thing is that although the film, and this scene specifically, evokes Le Carre's fearful point that there was hardly any difference between West and East anymore, throughout the film all of the malevolent ultra-violence is being committed by safely anonymous villains from the Other Side. This isn’t even to touch on how denuded and shallow the film’s portrait of Haydon, eventually revealed as mole and traitor, is: gone is his beautiful prison cell crack-up and his barely choate political mumblings, instead substituting merely the line, “I’ve made my mark,” reducing him to a one-dimensional egotist and nicely excusing the audience from having to think about his reasons for disloyalty. The film rather crassly makes Smiley’s Man Friday Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) gay, seen stowing away his live-in lover for the duration of investigations, a touch that doesn’t loan the film anything except the air of a phony grasp at relevance. Especially considering how it sticks with only hinting at the real tragic gay aspect of Le Carre’s book – the long-ago relationship of Prideaux and Haydon that turned into a famous professional partnership, underlying the rage of betrayal that drives Prideaux to finally track down and kill Haydon. 

The alterations to the story for the sake of bringing in the usual violent hype also suck away much of the inner sense of the plot. Maybe I could buy the Russians making it look like Tarr had killed his Istanbul liaison Thesinger (Philip Martin Brown) to bolster the appearance he’d become a traitor, but the act of massacring their own Istanbul team is so senseless as to beggar description: it would be nigh impossible for the Soviets to hide such a slaughter, it would be impossible to blame on Tarr, and the whole event as portrayed here would have set the nerves of every security and police service in a 10,000 mile radius vibrating with interest as to what went down. The worst is still to come: when Smiley interviews Prideaux, he tells of seeing Irina gunned down before him by one of Karla’s goons whilst he was interrogation, with the spoke message, “Tell Alleline what you saw!” Now, given that all of the story’s intricate mechanics demand that Alleline in no way be alerted to the wheels within wheels of Karla’s plot, this scene makes no sense whatsoever: it’s there simply so Alfredson can sneak a bit of shocking gore in there. The violence isn't just poorly thought-through and opportunistic, though: it actually spoils the neo-Kafkaesque qualities of the world Le Carre created, where people could disappear into the maws of totalitarianism and other global village sinkholes, to be heard from again only as fragments of information, hoping one day some bureaucratic pencil-pusher might write your epitaph. The film is simultaneously weirdly unspecific about that actual cost of the mole’s actions and the personal stakes in catching him – for instance, the fact Guillam had a whole team of men killed thanks to him. Most of the film’s better moments come in flashbacks, where Alfredson finds some looseness, but some inventions, like the Circus Christmas party he keeps returning to for vignettes revealing aspects of the crew’s former camaraderie, seem contrived and, especially in the case of Hurt’s Control, badly distorting, as Control is supposed to be a deeply intellectual, natural recluse who wouldn’t have had anything to do with such a wingding.

All of these aggravations might not have be bothered me so much if Alfredson’s direction had not begun to get on my nerves right from the start. Alfredson peppers his scenes with tracking shots and oblique framings that refuse to congeal into a genuine sense of paranoid style or poetic alienation, and a lack of a clear editing rhythm to give the film drive. Little is given any time to sink in and gain weight. The film’s production team has clearly put a hell of lot of effort and detail into recreating the grime and seaminess of aspects of the ‘70s English setting, and yet even there the film feels weirdly clumsy and anonymous, avoiding some of the non-germane yet grounding casual detail in portraying a London where snotty clubs and bookstores that knew your address exist alongside seamy hotels and crummy repair shops. This Tinker Tailor is in love with its own pseudo-grittiness painted over in lovingly textured terms by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, so precious compared to the no-nonsense realism and sodden atmospherics of Martin Ritt’s version of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1964). Almost all of the dry quips and asides have been surgically removed, leaving the film determinedly humourless, and if you do, like me, know the story well, there’s little left in the film to derive any pleasure from. Performances do help, although the cast isn’t used very well, good British actors all in a row like this is the upmarket equivalent of a Harry Potter film; Hurt, Cumberbatch, and Hardy are all at the top of their game, working wonders with little, Strong invests Prideaux with an intelligent pathos, and Kathy Burke has a splendid few minutes as Connie Sachs, the former Circus archivist with a dash of sexual perversity to leaven her deeply geeky brilliance. But such good work couldn’t make up for the film’s lack of focus and pandering reflexes. Finally I was so bored and frustrated by this version that whilst the miniseries is six hours long, this one felt twice as long. Still, whilst my artistic quarrels with Alfredson and the film in general are not minor, nonetheless in part I’m willing to concede that for neophytes there’s enough of the story left intact to weave a spell. But what I love about the material is almost entirely missing and the integrity and individuality of the story and its meaning are badly corroded.


Sam Juliano said...

Rod, I just scanned through this commanding essay, but will withold a comment until after I see the film tomorrow night at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, where I will meet up with two of my site colleagues, Maurizio and Bob. I am aware of all the great reviews, but this has never been a genre I have relished even with a few glorious exceptions. I can well understand your strong preference for the classic mini-series, and will certain take note as to what you say about the first twenty minutes.

I will return.

Roderick Heath said...

I await your opinion with interest, Sam. As an addendum to both this and to Women in Love, I watched Billion Dollar Brain soon after, and came out of it marveling at the way Russell both exemplifies and yet utterly mocks the genre with his overflowing style.

Sam Juliano said...

Well Rod, in the spirit of the holiday season I must profess complete agreement with you here. Mind you I am not saying this fraudulently, but genuinely as in the spirit of "happy to be the same page with you." The film grated on my nerves too and the opening half hour was as episodic as I've ever seen, a real diservice to this kind of intricate plot driven film. I can say I know what is missing as I never saw the mini-series, but after a while I can say the film had me baffled. The acting was quite impressive though, and there were some great set pieces.

I did like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN more than you did, but can still understand your issues, and like you I cared not an iota for the Yglesias score.

Anyway this passage here is buffo:

"And the fact that, whilst it’s certainly a spy thriller, it’s also a deeply eccentric one, a study in situational dynamics, political decay, and most intimately, of character expressed through a prism of entangled bureaucracy and physical, emotional, and moral danger. And yet I was still completely unprepared for this barely competent, eviscerated, essentially factotum adaptation of a well-proven hit, which has been drawing obscenely good reviews from all quarters recently."

Roderick Heath said...

I would never suspect you of saying something fraudulently, Sam. I'm glad at least somebody agrees with me on this. I would say please, please, please treat yourself to the miniseries at some point, because there's just so much more in it. I did like Let The Right One In a lot, but I did find it overlong, and Alfredson's direction distended and over-obtuse, a tendency which I feel this film enlarges upon, unfortunately. The fact was that the story was damned good there, and the transference of it virtually intact for Let Me In proved that. As for this film, I did like the final segment set to "La Mer", a nice bit of editing and image-arrangement, but the previous two hours were a high price to pay.

Marilyn said...

I'm really glad you wrote this up, Rod. It takes someone with a familiarity with the original to take the measure of this condensation. As I said before, I did enjoy watching it, but I am the neophyte you mention at the end. I personally was unhappy with Gary Oldman - he plays Smiley with such comatose severity that it's hard to see an intelligence working there. I loved your crack about everyone stopping to watch him "act now." That's kind of how I see his role in this - the person we wait to do something to make it all work out fine.

Roderick Heath said...

I've never quite been sold on Oldman as the do-anything character actor Hollywood seems to have thought he is since as far back as Immortal Beloved - Beethoven indeed! - and he's practically a charisma hole in this. But that's as much or more the screenwriters' fault, for not giving him enough to build a more engaging characterisation with. In the miniseries, for instance, Smiley's introduced sitting through an interminable dinner with one of his most big-mouthed former colleagues, and you begin to practically feel both his embarrassment and his remnant professional discretion even though he does little more than shrug and nod and look like he obviously wishes he were somewhere else. One of the real points isn't so much that he's there to do something that will make it all right, but that he's the man best equipped to make it all right but in a fashion that everybody underestimates. Such subtle deployment isn't on this film's schedule. But anyway, I'm glad the experience wasn't wasted for you.

Anonymous said...

This movie was a total bore fest! Great Actors, but so dull, drab and blah! Nothing exciting or thrilling about this spy mystery! I give it a big thumbs down!

Roderick Heath said...

The unknown audience member has spoken!

Patricia Perry said...

Alfredson avoids a flashback here, substituting instead the directorial equivalent of putting his finger to his lips and whispering, “Shhh, everybody, Gary’s finally going to act now.”

Love that!

I'm a very late-breaking commenter, Rod, but having just seen this over the past weekend, I had to stop by and express appreciation. Like Marilyn, I'm a neophyte to this tale (although I've read a handful of LeCarre's later novels), so I did enjoy it somewhat (although its pacing would, by comparison, make a glacier seem like an overcaffeinated olympic sprinter).

I was, however, no fan of Oldman's performance - inscrutable to the point of utter tedium. Someday I will watch Alec Guiness in the miniseries, and I fully expect him to be much better and more interesting to watch than Oldman.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Pat. If you thought the pace of the movie was slow, then you'll probably find that of the miniseries to be positively Tarkovsky-esque, but it feels more substantial. Guinness' Smiley isn't much more scrutable than Oldman's, but yes, "interesting to watch" is the key phrase, the strange joy in studying Smiley studying other people. Funnily enough, I watched Hitchcock's Topaz the other day, and although it has distinct problems, in many ways it's a better film of this story than this film.

Greg said...

I would have to say I agree with pretty much everything here. Oddly enough, I did enjoy watching the film, as in, I enjoyed the physical act of beholding the seventies look of the film. And I'm happy Oldman has finally been nominated but this performance is far, far, far from his best work. His performance in this may be better than I think but since the movie is framed as a story told in glimpses and double-takes, it's impossible to say because no character is given more than a few seconds here and a few seconds there in any given scene before the action moves on.

Roderick Heath said...

Greg, when you or I or anyone talks about Oldman's performance here, we're talking about basically one scene - the sequence where he recounts his meeting with Karla. It's the moment where Alfredson pauses to watch Oldman's gestural performance, and then goes in for the killer huge close up where we see Smiley's quivering, glassy-eyed sublimation of his general feelings into one casual phrase from years before. It's so utterly calculated to seem like great subtle acting it feels like the complete opposite, a naked piece of showmanship. I personally keep thinking about an Oldman performance I love which is the complete opposite in every regard, his massive, unsubtle, deliciously hammy work in Leon: The Professional. But that's a truly sustained, genuinely affecting piece of acting in the same way Guinness's very different Smiley performance also is, and which Oldman's here is not.