Holmes BBC

Tinker, Tailor revisited.

Right. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If you have not read the book, watched the miniseries, or watched the recent film, you will want to skip this entry. In it, I discuss my reactions to the recent film.

We watched the film last night on the Vudu thingie. I’ll say straight off that it was a good film. Well-written, well-directed, definitely well-acted. It was even an interesting exercise in adaptation for a complex and deep novel. I’m not sure it succeeds at making sense if you haven’t either read the novel or watched the previous adaptation. It cannot escape that earlier adaptation and doesn’t even try to: in the early montage of events after the death of Control, we see Gary Oldman acquire a pair of glasses that are iconically Smiley, and as I see that I cannot help but see Alec Guinness. In Oldman’s long silences I hear Guinness’s silences in the miniseries (crafted by Guinness himself when he cleverly claimed not to have learned the dialog or simply failed to recite it when the moment came).

But that’s okay. This adaptation is its own in a lot of ways even though it has to co-exist with the miniseries. It is a little heavy-handed as film-making. I’m thinking of the train tracks switching moment at the end, when we are supposed to see that Smiley has figured it out. Ka-THUD. There’s some cheating with cuts in the first (somewhat unnecessary) sequence with Peter Guillam burgling the Circus. It also commits the sin of not spending any time on the mole candidates who are not Bill Haydon, so if the viewer is paying attention to meta-cues the mystery is no mystery at all. The timeline is also kinda muddled: is it really compressed or does it take place over a year? When was Tarr’s adventure in Turkey (Portugal in book/miniseries) in comparison with Prideaux’s in Hungary (Czechoslovakia)?

Accidents of the massive compression problem the screenwriters had, I think. Novels are way too large for single films most of the time. This one was large enough for a 7-hour miniseries. The film is forced to accelerate timelines and leave details out.

Meh, these are small objections to an overall good experience. Colin Firth doesn’t have a chance to do much until the end, but he’s a great Haydon. John Hurt was a marvelous Control, just perfectly frayed and decayed and driven. Benedict Cumberbatch did interesting things with an expanded Peter Guillam. So, um, yay, do see it. But if you can, read the book first. Or watch the miniseries. They’re both better.

Where I start to have trouble with the film is in theme.

The novel is about betrayal and its consequences. The mole is a double agent at the very heart of British intelligence. His betrayal is political and massively damaging to British interests at all levels. His betrayal gets people killed. But it’s also personal. The novel begins and ends with sections about Jim Prideaux, from the point of view of the schoolboy Bill Roach. Jim Prideaux’s betrayal by Haydon was both personal (they were lovers at Oxford, hinted at in novel, brought textually to the fore in the movie) and political (he’s an agent whose actions in the field are directly compromised by Haydon). He’s the means by which we explore the consequences of betrayal. Anne Smiley betrays George Smiley with Haydon, and of course is herself betrayed by him because he does so on instruction and doesn’t actually care for her. What does he care for? What’s going on inside him? Smiley speculates that perhaps only Karla, the Russian spymaster who runs Haydon, knew for sure. We can only see the damage done.

Prideaux kills Haydon at the end, which is justice done at many levels. Smiley has to know it was Prideaux, but he does nothing. It’s unimportant to him, perhaps.

So, betrayal. Yay. The film changes a few details and shifts this theme drastically.

The film attempts to tell us that spying destroys personal lives, that these people cannot have relationships. When they do, it is destructive. They’re best off cutting off ties even when it’s painful. Ricki Tarr tells us this pretty much right on the nose when he says (haplessly because she is already dead) that he wants them to get Irina away from the Russians and he wants to retire from the spying business. He’s allowed himself to get involved with her and this gets several people killed. Tarr doesn’t want to end up like you lot, he says, meaning Smiley and Guillam.

Guillam we’ve just seen end his personal relationship at Smiley’s request on such thin grounds that I said “WTF?” at the TV screen while watching it. I knew watching that scene that it was there for some other reason than plot, and only later figured out that it was a pointer to this isolation theme.

Prideaux dooms himself by going to Haydon to warn him that Control is looking for a mole. He does it because of that personal relationship. When he has made the decision to kill the traitor Haydon, at the very end, he has another bit of on-the-nose dialog where he tells Bill Roach to go fit in with the other boys and be one of them. “Don’t end up like us lot”, aka, exactly Ricki Tarr’s message.

George Smiley, of course, has famously been abandoned by his wife Anne. And at no moment do we see Anne Smiley. We do not get the novel’s search for her, or the miniseries’s final scene in which Smiley talks to her about Haydon. (The miniseries does not stray from the novel’s betrayal theme.) Smiley at the end of this film ascends to his proper place at the head of the Circus with what has to be ironic applause from the soundtrack, but we see no sign of Anne in his life any more. He’s cut off all ties. Success for him at his job, then.

So it’s interesting in its own right, but I’m not so sure it can stand in place of that novel. Not a faithful adaptation at its heart. Which is okay, since we already had a faithful adaptation. Future ones can stray.
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Walking out of the theater, having just seen the miniseries - my immediate reaction was that they had somehow managed to make their two-hour movie even slower than the series. Maybe only because of the strength of Guinness's acting, scenes in which very little is happening in the miniseries still cultivated a certain tension and menace. I didn't get the same feeling from Oldman swimming around in the river for no reason. I was reminded how the entire opening montage of the movie, to show how alone Smiley was, was communicated as effectively by a single opening scene from the series, with Alec Guinness alone in a bookstore.

My other major complaint was that one simply could not look at that cast of characters and not immediately know that Colin Firth was the bad guy. Before they even tell you who Colin Firth is playing, you know he's the bad guy because the other guys are, comparatively, nobodies.

The miniseries doesn't need to resort to cinematographic tricks to tell you what the theme is. Everyone loses, in the end - even though it's a happy ending because they catch the guy and Smiley gets the recognition that's always been denied him. That's there in the story. The series let their actors just act that, and it conveyed the same thing without turning itself halfway toward pretentious art film.

There are a few things about the film - Tarr and Guillam are more fully fleshed out (where I expected, going in, that Tarr would be basically cut from the story for time reasons), and that gives them a chance to talk about the generational shift, and the implication that the younger generation prefers the showy, empty behavior of Haydon to the quiet loyalty of Smiley - that are a little stronger than the series. But when I walked out of the theater, I thought it was a hot mess - a well-acted, poorly-made movie. I don't think my opinion's changed in the time since.
Not so sure it was poorly made. More slightly thuddy direction in pursuit of a goal that maybe wasn't worth it in the end given the source material. I understand the urge to re-adapt that source material, since it's such a wonderful piece of writing. But re-adapting presents Problems capital-P. First, the complexity of the novel & the mystery in it, and fitting that into the tiny space of a movie. Second, being in the shadow of Alec Guinness.

I'd love to hear from somebody who didn't know the story going in about whether they knew it was Firth's character all along. Because I think I would have. Toby Esterhaze was never a credible candidate because the script did all this meta-stuff to point out that he wasn't. Bland & Alleline got no time. (Alleline was mis-cast.)

I re-watched the miniseries a few months ago and was amazed by how drawn in I was by the opening scene, in which men walk into a meeting room, smoking or about to smoke, sit down, and then one of them speaks. Just that and I was hooked. My husband wandered into my office a few minutes in and then was nailed in place (unwillingly) for the next 7 hours while we mainlined the thing. So slow yet so tense, watching everything unravel.
I enjoyed the film on several levels, once I told myself that it was not "my" Tinker Tailor. I have seen it twice ad Gary Oldman's Smiley improves on a second viewing. But Guinness is the Smiley of the book. He bumbles, he gets caught up in social mishaps, he can't refuse or say no. Oldman is too "hard". You see the steel running through him which is fine, but not the George Smiley of the books or the mini series. That steel is so well hidden that we are shocked when it appears.

I agree that not nearly enough was made of Bland and Esterhaze. I suppose a 2 hour film couldt accommodate them. Silly little things really annoyed me - Irina being beaten by her husband, and having nothing more than a slight cut the next day! Smiley swimming in the Ponds at Hampstead Heath. There is no way Guiness' Smiley would take his clothes off in public.

And, stupidly, it really annoyed me that they didn't link Prideux breaking the owl's neck and breaking Haydon's as he does in book and mini. Surely that was the whole point of the scene and I just couldn't see the justification of making him shoot Bill.

Yes, those swimming sequences baffled me. Very un-Smiley. I was also interested in the class signals in the original adaptation & this one. Thirty years between them, more or less, and the culture that made this one was not the culture that made the previous one. Smiley is not seen buying a rare book then eating at a club with a man he cannot escape because of the social mishaps you mention. Bland is not obviously red-brick and distinct from the others in this one (Ciaran Hinds looks and is dressed just like Alleline). Class signals all are muted in this adaptation.

At least for me, though I realize I'm reading them as an outsider in each case.