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.