When I first heard that a film was going to be made of John le Carre’s cold-war spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, my first reaction was ‘Why?’ After Alec Guinness’s masterly portrayal of the lugubrious George Smiley in the 1979 BBC six parter, what was the point in remaking it? My fears were slightly allayed when I heard that John le Carre himself was involved in the film as executive producer; and he can’t have done it just for the money. But the question of why remake perfection still nagged at me when I went to see the film.
First thing I notice is that there are some spurious changes. Smiley lives in Islington, not Bywater Street, Chelsea. Ricki Tarr meets Irina in Istanbul rather than Hong Kong (though I forgive this, as the BBC series changed the location to Lisbon on cost grounds). But having Jim Prideaux’s escapade for Control taking place in Hungary rather than Czechoslovakia (or Czecho, as Circus old hands call it) was a step too far for me. Did the makers think that as this country no longer exists, it couldn’t be referenced?
And Peter Guillam is gay and has to get rid of his boyfriend. Why? In the book, Guillam is portrayed as an outright, womaniser. Some people have suggested it is to increase his motivation to get Haydon, as he fancies either Haydon or Prideaux, but I don’t think that works.
Sam Collins, the member of the circus who manned the switchboard the night of the Prideaux shooting has gone to be replaced for no apparent reason with Jerry Westerby. And Jerry Westerby, the honourable schoolboy himself, is a scouser! One of the whole points of the Karla trilogy is how the Circus is still run by ex-public schoolboys apart from the scalphunters like Tarr and Fawn. TTSS is awash with class and le Carre is highly critical of this. This seems to have been completely lost in the film.
Also, the whole decline of Britain from world player to obscurity, which is such an important theme in the book, is not addressed enough in the film. Kathy Burke is adequate as the Connie Sachs character as written in the film, but the character in the book and as played by Beryl Reid was much more interesting. She liked a drink, she was arthritic and, frankly, a bit of a pain. But she was cossetted by the circus for her memory, given leeway for her brain. But she too was behind the times. ‘ My poor boys’, she says in the film. But she doesn’t say the next line which is more important. ‘Trained for empire , trained to rule the waves. All gone.’ Which was the whole point. Loss of empire. Everything changing. Britain’s decline.
The film TTSS has been lauded for its period detail, which is excellent, though it does rely on a lot of dark furniture. Of course, when the BBC made their version, it was contemporary drama. Somehow that made things look even more banal. Smiley’s flat in Chelsea had a small basement living room of mean proportions but filled with Georgian desks and beautiful art along with an electric bar fire. The TV series did not make things intentionally murky as the film does, but somehow the shabbiness is increased by the brighter light. This is the winter when the miners will strike and bring down a government.
This makes it sound like the film isn’t very good. On the contrary, there are many wonderful things in it. It manages to get the whole plot into the two hours which is quite a feat. And some additions the film makes are great. The Circus Christmas party is not in the book, but really works in terms of both the film and the story. I loved it when a man in a Lenin mask, dressed in a red Santa Claus suit conducts them all in a rousing rendition of the soviet national anthem. It was lovely to see John Le Carre making a cameo appearance in this scene, rising up like a young salmon, yelling out the Russian words as much as anyone. I suspect that this sort of thing really did go on.
So what of the performances? John le Carre has been quoted as saying that Gary Oldman makes a very dangerous Smiley. But for me, nothing was a dangerous as Alec Guinness taking off his glasses to polish them while quizzing Ricki Tarr about whether Tarr as been playing ‘for the other side’ as Smiley says after putting on this glasses again, his round eyes like menacing golf balls through the lenses. To me, Gary Oldman seemed more timid and restrained. In fact, his whole performance is based on an extreme reserve, which did not show Smiley as a rich a character as Guinness did.
Colin Firth was surprisingly good as Bill Haydon. After Ian Richardson’s towering performance in the TV series, I thought no one could match him, but Firth has a damn good try . David Dencik shows another side to the Austro-Hungarian wideboy Toby Esterhase. On TV, Bernard Hepton made him more flouncy and superficially confident. Dencik makes him more vulnerable. There is a great scene when Smiley interrogates Esterhase on a landing strip of an aerodrome. As he questions Toby with more vigour, a plane lands behind them, and the door opens. The implication is that Toby might be sent back behind the Iron Curtain. At the end, Esterhase is sobbing like a child: ‘I am loyal. Don’t send me back’
As for the other performances, Toby Jones was small and bustling as Percy Alleline. But I preferred the tall and pompous performance of Michael Aldridge. John Hurt was excellent but really a very similar performance and face to Alexander Knox. Mark Strong was good as Jim Prideaux.
Simon Burney was OK as Lacon, though I preferred the pompous bustle of Anthony Bate. And why does he live in a modernist flat? It was described in the book as monstrous pile?
Overall the film is more emotional, less cynical. Tarr’s love for Irina is shown quite simply. And not really questioned.
Le Carre has said that he understood ‘the architecture of betrayal’ and we shouldn’t forget that this is what Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is about. I felt the whole issue of betrayal was not explored enough in the film. We don’t get enough of why Haydon did it. Yes, as he says in the film (and book) it was partly an aesthetic choice, with the ugliness of seventies Britain, but in the book and TV series Haydon then goes on to say how he hates America and knew that England was out of the game. At first, he wasn’t betraying England, but the United States. This is so important to the book and brings together the twin themes of betrayal and the decline of Britain that was the whole point of the book. Without it, the film lacks a certain solidity.
So overall, not a five star film, maybe three and a half, though when I think of the excellent Christmas party I think four stars are more appropriate.
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