Ciphers in the shadows

Shaun de Waal

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absorbing in its thinky, downbeat way; it's an intelligent adaptation of a long, complicated tale .

Having lost its commas sometime since John le Carré published the novel in 1974, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can probably now also be abbreviated to TTSS. I can’t remember whether it still had commas in the late 1970s, when the BBC made a generally acclaimed miniseries of this famous and bestselling novel, with Alec Guinness as Le Carré‘s master spy, George Smiley.

The series was so successful that the BBC made a follow-up, Smiley’s People, jumping over the middle novel in what had come to be called the Karla Trilogy, named for Smiley’s distant opponent, the Russian spymaster sitting in Moscow at the centre of his spider web.

Apparently the BBC declined to make a series of that second novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, because much of it was set in Hong Kong and on the edges of the Vietnam war, so it was going to be too expensive to make.

It would have needed a miniseries, being about double the length of its predecessor, TTSS. It is unlikely that it could be jammed into the length of an ordinary movie; the TTSS series was about seven hours long in total. The new film of TTSS has managed to fit itself into regular movie length, and in doing so has lost more than just the commas in its title.

Lost details
For those who haven’t read the book or seen the TV series, that’s probably acceptable. It makes a perfectly coherent and gripping story as it stands, but a great deal of the character detail and so forth is gone, let alone the studiously circuitous way in which the story unfolds. (My own view is that Le Carré adapted the layered, polyvocal narrative style of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet to his own purposes, making the spy novel less of a straightforward thriller than a kind of murky detective story).

For this new movie, directed by Swede Tomas Alfredson, who made the excellent Let the Right One In, the plot of TTSS has been reduced to its basics and reordered so that it starts in a logical place, though one of those places the novel approaches crabwise, and then moves forward. It does, however, take advantage of the flashback form to fill in any details or plot points we might need to make sense of things, and does it well.

It is 1973; the Cold War is still in progress. Smiley has been working for the British secret service since World War II and is now of retirable age. His erstwhile boss, known only as Control, has departed, leaving “the Circus”, as its employees know it, in the hands of younger men. But a series of events, linked back to another story with origins in the distant past, cause a few wobbles in the Circus. Thus Smiley is called back to snuffle around for a traitor in its midst.

In the shadows
If you haven’t, indeed, read Le Carré, then put aside notions of any simplistic take on Cold War politics or the machinations of espionage agencies. It’s so very much more complicated than you might imagine. Part of the joy of Le Carré is precisely this complexity, this shadowiness over motive, belief, politics. The new TTSS film gives an admirable sense of this atmosphere of ambiguity and ambivalence, never mind deceptive and doubled personalities, with which this crespuscular world is necessarily replete.

The loss of a lot of character detail, or the lack of time to go into them in any depth, does, however, diminish some of the interest of this plot. Smiley has to sort through the possibilities, working out which of several people in the higher echelons of the Circus might be the betrayer. It’s much more interesting when you have a sense of who these people are as individuals, as well as the entwinements of the past, but the film can do little better than reduce them to stark outlines, with little personalised content. You might call them, in spy terms, ciphers.

Smiley himself is a fascinating character, the polar opposite of the James Bond who in the 1950s started saving “the free world” from the Soviet counterintelligence agency Smersh and from various madmen bent on causing havoc for nefarious reasons of their own—Dr No, Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld ...

Smiley has no flamboyance; he has, it is said, an extreme dislike of exhibitionism of any sort. He has a mild-mannered personality, as well as what Le Carré calls “the gift of quiet”. No death-defying feats for Smiley: no fast cars or parachuting off clifftops or blowing things up. He is more at ease with meticulous research in the files than he is with, say, firing rockets out of his car’s exhaust pipes. Moreover, none of that derring-do would suit him physically. He is described as short and rotund, and he wears very big, round, thick glasses. He’s brain, not brawn.

In that respect, the notably slender Gary Oldman is not quite the right bodily type for the role. An Albert Finney, say, would have been better in that respect (look what he did with Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). But we can perhaps let the physical thing slide; we can see it as an interpretation of the character and not just a reproduction. After all, even Le Carré had to revise Smiley’s birth date and biography somewhat, as he began to take up more space in the novels, so that he wouldn’t be entirely superannuated by 1973. He’s still going as pretty old, though, which is another anti-Bondism.

Unobtrusive presence
Oldman has Smiley’s stillness and his owlish watchfulness right, and he is able to shrink himself down, it would appear, to project Smiley’s unobtrusive presence. Just as Smiley, in the novels at least, is consciously playing up his apparent harmlessness, and leaning on his increasing age as a sort of “cover”, Oldman is playing the slow, hesitant pensioner behind whose appearance hides a mind of almost preternatural sharpness.

The world conjured by the film has a related greyness, a dowdy palette that speaks of cold, wet London and the concrete blocks of the 1970s.

This London is as muted as Smiley is; you can barely convince yourself that it was in this very year of 1973 that David Bowie mutated from Ziggy Stardust into Aladdin Sane—or was it the Jean Genie?

In all, this Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absorbing in its thinky, downbeat way; it’s an intelligent adaptation of a long, complicated tale to the strictures of the cinema. One may miss the texture and the detail, but it does make a decent fillet of the thing.

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