Monday, January 2, 2012

Tinkering With Cold War Espionage

In 1979, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was produced as a seven-part miniseries based on the novel by John LeCarré.  The story is a tangled web, an intricate tale of spies living compartmentalized lives with interwoven personal histories during the Cold War.  A story of this complexity needs that miniseries format.  So this year’s two-hour film version, despite its extraordinary cast and style, falls a bit short in this condensed view. 
The Poster.  (c) 2011 StudioCanal
Absurd as this may be, I find myself describing this feeling the way I would describe whole wheat pasta.  Apparently whole wheat and multi-grain pastas taste like pasta to those who have never tasted semolina.  If you have tasted semolina, you know the taste and texture of whole wheat and multi-grain pasta is just – not wrong, exactly, but not right.  It’s not pasta, that noun must be preceded by an adjective that shows it’s not the real thing.  That’s how I felt about 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  It has strength, suspense, it is skillfully directed and acted and shot.  But something’s not quite there there.

Accepting the fact that two hours is too short a period in which to tell this labyrinthine tale, I like this film.  It starts slowly — it must be twenty minutes before Smiley even speaks — and shows us 1973 London as a dark and dreary place.  This is the Cold War, something that merely influenced life in the far-off U.S., but pervaded every layer of it in Europe. 

Dreary London, dreary Smiley (C)2011 StudioCanal
 What I remember of Alec Guinness’ George Smiley was a reptilian quality.  I haven’t read a Smiley book in a long time, so I cannot recall if the slightly more human Smiley that Gary Oldman gives us is closer to what LeCarré wrote, or not.  Oldman’s Smiley has a great deal going on behind his eyes, already hidden by large eyeglasses.  He sees all but doesn’t let anyone see that he sees. 

The place and the people of this story are the highest echelons of British intelligence in 1973.  These men of MI6 are the spies who survived World War II and decades of the Cold War.  They are tired, they are bitter, they are cynical, and they don’t trust one another any farther than they could throw a circus elephant; but they are bound together as inexorably as soldiers who fight a horrendous battle together and survive – at least part of them survives.

The tension in this boys’ club builds slowly, with each main character in some way introduced.  To tell a tale of spies betraying one another, let alone their country, one most know who these people are.  One of the weaknesses of this short form is that not all the characters of the Circus are clearly drawn.  The Circus, by the way, is a term LeCarré made up for the headquarters and personnel of the spy world.  There are no acrobats there, no trapeze, and no safety nets.  Just secretive, disguised men sporting the costumes of their class and time.
John Hurt losing "Control."

At the opening of the film, the leader of the group is “Control,” played with surly exhaustion by John Hurt.  He sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret trip to Eastern Europe to bring back a defector.  Secret even from their colleagues at the Circus because Control is sure there’s a mole in their midst selling them out to the Soviet Union.  Already Prideaux’s uncomfortable, and then things go very wrong.  We see Prideaux shot, and soon Control is driven out of the Circus, taking George Smiley into retirement with him.  The remaining members of the Circus are smug, and all of them are hiding something from their closest colleagues. 

Toby Jones plays Percy Alleline, the new leader. He snarls, he’s a ferret of a man, he lashes out fiercely, claws his way to the top of the pile of his erstwhile friends and colleagues.  Jones is great at this, portraying the man with supercilious certainty of his superiority.  Without knowing why, we know better.

Ciarán Hinds plays Roy Bland, the least talkative and least known of the group.  Visually he’s terrific, cold, a British good old boy, and I assume there’s more of him on the cutting room floor.  As it is, Bland is an unsatisfying because undefined character.

Firth as Haydon.  (c)2011 StudioCanal
Colin Firth plays Bill Haydon, cocky, confident, a cuckholding bastard everybody seems to love.  I forecast a Best Supporting Actor Oscar or at least nomination for this portrayal.  He’s so very affable, so very relaxed, so very cunning.

David Dencik plays the odd man out, Toby Esterhase — a man who presumably changed sides whenever necessary to his survival in the turmoil of European politics of the mid-twentieth century.  He is loftily terse with everyone outside the inner circle, yet appears rattled when Control barks at him.

The younger members – not of the inner circle, just the Circus – are Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Giullam in a solid, sweet, and, in one scene, heartbreaking performance.  Tom Hardy is marvelous as Ricki Tarr.  Tarr is a sleazy guy, with perhaps more heart and honor than anyone gives him credit for, and Hardy is really fabulous in this role, fooling me at every turn.

We see Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux several times in a charming snapshot of him with Bill Haydon (Firth), a snapshot that seems to give Haydon pain and Smiley ideas.

Cumberbatch and Oldman (c)2011 StudioCanal
Into this boys’ club Kathy Burke intruded back in the day, forcefully and cheerfully, as Connie Sachs.  She’s been with the boys since the war, and she misses those old days, when, as she saw it, the English had a great deal to be proud of.  Clearly she does not think that of England in 1973, and she is “retired” as unceremoniously as Control and Smiley.

Svetlana Khodchenkova is part of Ricki Tarr’s mission, the abused wife, therefore a potential tool for a spy.  Ms. Khodchenkova is strong and vulnerable, giving a memorable performance.

The smallest roles are well executed, and the cast was what drew me to this film in the first place.  These actors and beautifully framed shots are directed by Tomas Alfredson (who directed Let the Right One In, the original version).  Here he directs the screenplay written by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan.  I think all three did good work translating this layered story into a form too short to do it justice. 
Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is dank, dark, and dismal, but gorgeous, and Dino Jonsäter’s film editing builds tension tersely.

What struck me is that spies live lives of lies, and that therefore the spouses of serial killers can hardly be blamed for not knowing they were living with murderers – surely there are more spies than serial killers in the world, and it’s doubtful their spouses know what those people do, either.

Why did this occur to me?  I think you’ll know if you see the film, which, despite some flaws, I recommend.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, and putting the 1979 Alec Guinness miniseries into my Netflix queue and LeCarre’s novel onto my library list.

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