Page to Screen: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
based on the novel by John le Carré


I’ve started to make it a policy to read the novel before I see a film these days, although sometimes I don’t know until the opening credits that a film is eligible for review here at The Literary Omnivore. C’est la vie. This policy drove me to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as homework to watch the film version, which is so full of beloved British actors that it’s not even funny. Now, since I had great difficulty in trying to connect to the novel that proved insurmountable, the film loomed even larger in my imagination as a possible means of redemption. Eventually, I nabbed it from the library, made a makeshift couch for myself in my room (the common room’s television was taken! Curses!), and watched, open-mouthed and quietly, for two hours.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes place in London in the early seventies, during the Cold War. George Smiley, a retired Secret Service agent, is called back into action in order to investigate the presence of a mole in the Circus, as they call the Intelligence Headquarters. His efforts to do so force him to retrace the steps that led he and the Circus here, including the botched operation that was the last straw for the recently deceased Control and the Circus’ trade of intelligence and agents across the globe.

I’ll admit there was a moment or two when I panicked with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I’d put it on while in the mood to have a film grab me by the neck and not let go, hoping that I wouldn’t encounter a wall again, and director Thomas Alfredson’s stark minimalism gave me a bit of a fright. But Alfredson uses stark edits, dim lighting, and the grunginess of early 1970s London to create a particularly richly textured world. In his vision of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the hunt for the mole is an excuse to examine a dying world—a world with problems, undoubtedly, but a world where loyalty is—and ought to be—repaid, and disloyalty… well, I think you can guess. Early in the investigation, Smiley visits Connie, a recently fired watcher, and she sighs over a box of photos of “her boys” from the good old days. Smiley reminds her that the good old days were World War II, but Connie persists; at least, she argues, that was a war with clean lines. Representing the next generation of spies are Ricki Tarr, who explicitly states that he wants a family instead, and Peter Guillam, a slim, efficient new model whose personal life is particularly compromised by the job. There are hints of the new world order here and there—I was particularly taken by Guillam, impeccably dressed as always, walking by graffiti declaring that “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE”. So scenes are boxed in, unglamorous, geometric, and dark; after all, the only purpose of light is to illuminate the things we don’t want to admit are there, like cheating wives and traitors.

One of my main obstacles with the novel was being unable to find an access point into the novel through any of the characters, but the screenplay places much more focus on the relationships between these men. This dying world is a man’s world—women exist in it, of course, as secretaries, landladies, and beloveds, but I found it absolutely fascinating that Alfredson never gives us a proper look at the face of Ann, George’s beloved and estranged wife. You can’t put a face on a symbol like that. These men cannot have normal lives; George’s attempt to have one with Ann makes her a pawn in the spy games, as does Guillam’s. And any attempts to build that within the Circus backfires. At the beginning of the film, we see that George and Control appear to have some sort of an understanding, but they part without saying a word and George soon learns that Control suspected him of being a mole. Another relationship explodes even more spectacularly. The sides are arbitrary—George has said as much to Karla, the mastermind behind the mole—but the damage is brutally, painfully real.

Such a film could not give all that up without having some fine acting. At the Golden Globes, Quentin Tarantino, in accepting the award for Best Screenplay for Django Unchained, stated that the only reason he was receiving this award was because his cast did incredible work. And so we see that here. It’s packed to the gills with esteemed British actors because that’s what these roles require—entrenched men with inherent authority. Even young Guillam, with his boyish, blond bangs and sharp suits, is still played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who can stop bullets with his stern voice at a hundred paces. Colin Firth and Mark Strong turn in strong, raw work here, and as for Gary Oldman? Well, the Oscar nomination is utterly, utterly deserved. His George Smiley may seem timid and meek, but that’s only because he’s considering every possible option. He doesn’t even speak until about fifteen minutes into the film, and even then, he’s opaque. But the hints we get of the Smiley below the surface—especially in a scene where a drunk Smiley reenacts an encounter with Karla—is of a dangerous, almost amoral man who just happens to be on the side of “good”. It’s riveting stuff.

Bottom line: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally gives me a way into the story, by focusing on relationships and the damage this lifestyle causes. Stark, painful, and gorgeous. Well worth a watch.

You can read my review of the novel here.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

  1. Absolutely…the tv series was excellent. I enjoyed the updated film, but given the constraints of cinema, a two-three hour piece could not do the book justice….it was a very valiant attempt all the same. Top book, of course, and I always agree with reading the book of the film, first!

  2. Pingback: A Spy’s Sound-Check | Sherlockian Mind

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