“We are not so very different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another.”
I believe that literature can only be of a high standard if it is rooted in research – and so it is with trepedation that I review Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. It has been adapted from one of the greatest spy novels written by John le Carre and was adapted in 1979 as a critically-acclaimed TV-series whereby Alec Guinness played the titular character ‘Smiley’. Alfredson’s adaptation converts the novel into a 127-minute film, clocking in a tad over two-hours, whilst the TV-series ran for seven-episodes across 290-minutes. I have not read the novel and I have not seen the TV-series and the term “slow-burn spy-thriller” does not exactly ‘light up’ my eyes. What interested me greatly in this film are the outstanding actors attached to the project. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Simply outstanding.
In the grey-green early-70’s London we are shown ‘the Circus’ – a le Carre name for MI-6 – whereby Smiley (Oldman) is drafted in to investigate a ‘mole’ who is deeply-rooted in the office. He is working almost-alone and the primary suspects are men from his generation of spies – Toby Esterhause (David Dencik), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones). Smiley’s cold and calculating thought process is where Alfredson focuses our attention – regularly shooting the back of his head as we slowly come to think what he thinks.
The context is important as the time reflects the end of an era in British intelligence. Smiley and the men he investigate are “war-winning gentlemen-spies” from the same class, race, and gender of society. Though it is Smiley’s Oxford education, opposed to Cambridge, that we may assume sets him apart. John Sutherland details how when le Carre wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “MI-6 had been shaken to near destruction by the belated discovery of traitors at its core – notably the ‘Cambridge spies'”. The fascination of this story spawned many adaptations – even recently in the 2003 BBC four-part TV-drama Cambridge Spies starring Toby Stephens, Tom Hollander and, interestingly enough, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Not my Cup of Tea?
From reading the 5-star review in Empire and the 5-page coverage following the front-cover “Gary Oldman is Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in Sight & Sound, it is clear that the film is a strong adaptation and for espionage aficionado’s, an engaging thriller. But I personally felt a little out-of-touch. I try hard to appreciate the context of a film but I found it difficult to fully appreciate the drawn-out scenes that were forcing us to think-what-they-are-thinking. The character of Smiley is almost hunched and his plain Aquascutum raincoat seems ill-fitting and at odds with Benedict Cumberbatch’s smartly-dressed investigatory-assistant. This is not to say that it is a bad thing – the sombre colours of the greys and greens lean well to the era and I think Alfredson is a master at creating a time that is cold, isolating and lonely. The blues-and-whites in Let the Right One In are replaced by greens-and-browns – both Oskar and Smiley are desperately alone. Even Smileys unfaithful wife, though incredibly important in the novel, Alfredson only depicts the back of her head and her prescence in room at the end of a corridor. This lonliness can be difficult to watch – and the Anglo-Soviet politics seem to isolate me as a viewer – it is my lack of research into this topic that divides me from the primary audience of this film.
I managed to watch this film through a LOVEFiLM screening at The Soho Hotel and the screenwriter introduced the film by stating how he hoped nobody ‘got lost’ in the plot. I don’t believe I did and I doubt anyone paying attention could – it is exceptionally well-written and clearly includes details that many could appreciate. But unfortunately, I think I shall try and rent a few more “slow-burn spy-thrillers”, because at this moment I feel I stopped short of becoming throughly engaged throughout.