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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

M16 grandee George Smiley is forced into retirement following a disastrous misadventure behind the Iron Curtain. He sets out to discover why the mission failed, and unmasks a Soviet agent at the heart of British intelligence.

Comparing books to films is a mug's game. 'Not as good as the book' is one of my least favourite sentences. It's a platitudinous and mindless statement, since meaningful comparison is made nigh-impossible by the radically different ways books and films are produced and consumed. But 'not as good as the previous version' is a good sentence, because it's something you can have a conversation about.

Good directors are aware of both traps and possibilities. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek was very different from the previous Star Treks, but his re-imagining was complemented by knowing winks at his audience. Abrams was able to construct an implausible universe more easily by transplanting his story into a priori space. Less talented directors run into trouble when they brush against a tale previously told (it helped Abrams that his is the best of the 11 films about the Starship Enterprise). Sometimes there's no room left for reinvention. Brandon Routh never had a hope of stepping into Christopher Reeve's red boots in the folly of Superman Returns. Gus van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho I simply don't understand.

When Tomas Alfredson was chosen to create a new version/vision of John le Carré's 1974 novel, he was more free than other recent rebooters. A seven-part BBC television production had already brought the story to screen. But that screen was smaller, the production (necessarily) episodic. Alfredson had a little more wriggle-room.

The publicity people at StudioCanal (Alfredson's producers) were plainly aware of the advantages and pitfalls of cinematic recycling. So they based their marketing strategy on a single conceit - 'this is not a remake'. The mantra was an ingenious publicity ploy, but it resembled the clichéd denials of a murderer who has not yet been told that a killing has taken place. It continually reminded eager audiences of a world that had already been visualized, and a set of maladjusted spies we were already familiar with. It also helped lazy reviewers, who were given their opening two paragraphs. I haven't read a review of the film that doesn't reference Alec Guinness in the first 100 words.

The denials are a nonsense of course. A nonsense firstly, paradoxically, in the explicit refashioning of certain scenes to call attention to the differences between the two versions. We might call this the Abrams conceit - reminding audiences, by emphasizing unimportant differences, of an earlier production. Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens in Budapest, not in Czechoslovakia, using an alternatively exotic Warsaw Pact arena as though to emphasize, from the start, distinctions between 1979 and 2011. The open-plan interior and exterior spaces of MI6 headquarters are the visual antithesis to the cramped and cloistered corridors and paper-strewn offices of 1979. Even the title differs - the commas have been removed.

But after the first act, we segue into familiar territory. The story proceeds in almost exactly the same fashion as the 1979 version, but using various visual devices to cut corners, and developing characters by way of facial expressions instead of dialogue (315 minutes must be reduced to 127). The props are the same, the clothes are the same. The words spoken are the same words, with a few choice expletives thrown in. The grimy London streets are the same grimy London streets. But it feels like a reimagining, it feels like a simulacrum of 1974. Alfredson tries too hard to present an original visual mood, to impose an auteuresque patina, to generate a knowing authenticity, and he slips into pastiche and trivial error. Look carefully and you can see modern cars on the streets of Paris and Istanbul. Drunken attendees at the MI6 Christmas party sing the version of the Soviet National Anthem written in 1977.

Then there's Gary Oldman's excellent performance as George Smiley. As an interpretation of Alec Guinness interpreting George Smiley it is astonishing. Oldman claims he based his voice and mannerisms on John le Carré's. The publicity people probably had a hand in that claim too.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, librarian
When Alfredson tries to do something different, he fumbles. Minor variations from the earlier plot mostly involve more explicit sex and violence. One particularly horrific murder is used to demonstrate the callousness of Smiley's Soviet arch-enemy Karla (thus dynamiting other suggestions of moral ambiguity). Other directorial detours wind up as ambitious but obtrusive experiments in cinematography. These digressions result in a film of jarring change and uneven pace.

So what's it got to do with libraries? In my earlier post about the 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I described Peter Guillam's brief foray into the MI6 library to swipe some top-secret folders. The same thing happens in the 2011 version, in the same order, and with most of the same dialogue. But the library is as different as can be. In contrast to the cramped room of untidy corners and blue-tac crumbs, we get three Victorian metal galleries overlooking a large void. Instead of sharp natural light we get fluorescence and shadows. The female librarian is replaced by a man. The same events, told in the same way, the foreground the same but the background in negative.

I'm looking out at the Bodleian Library as I write this, my view an almost exact reproduction of the photograph shown under the credits at the end of the television serial (project the camera back 30 metres and it would be sitting where I sit). Alec Guinness' Smiley walked through the Bodleian's courtyard when visiting another spy forced into retirement. The closing credits showed the edge of the Bodleian and its Radcliffe Camera reading room. It's a pity that Alfredson's smudgy vision of 1970s Britain didn't leave room for a smart visual comment about the infiltration of the British establishment by Oxbridge values, standards, flaws, and ultimately, hinting at the identity of the spy, relationships.

The charismatic performances cannot disguise the jagged pace, the annoying use of montage, the failure to engage the audience. It's an interesting visual experiment, but if you want a gripping and human spy thriller, watch the television serial instead.

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Written by Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editing: Dino Jonsäter
Original music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast includesGary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik


  1. Really want to watch the original first, but I'm intrigued by the line, "As an interpretation of Alec Guinness interpreting George Smiley it is astonishing." Gary Oldman's always worth a watch. (As are libraries and librarians in film, of course!)

  2. This was an amazing movie review. I hope I can watch this action movie soon. Thank you for a such an informative blog you have here.