Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Cold war or cold bore?

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Two years ago, BBC Radio four adapted all of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Tom Ripley’ novels for the radio and they were outstanding. Last year, they did the same with all of John le Carré’s George Smiley novels and the result left me pretty cold. I still had to be convinced that le Carré was a master storyteller and that George Smiley was the greatest character of the spy thriller genre ever created. Then I saw the pictures and posters for the film version of Carré’s novel ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and thought, maybe.

And then came the reviews: glowing, gushing and generally saying what an excellent movie it was. Even Mark Lawson on Radio four’s Front Row didn’t have a bad word to say; and this is a man who otherwise always makes snide remarks about modern Anglophone cinema. That was the clincher! If even Lawson thought ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ was good, then… who knows? I had to go and see this film!

I wasn’t disappointed.

The best British movie since ‘Four Lions’, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ manages to be an intelligent, complex and well-crafted film without being unintelligible, complicated and intangible. It is beautifully shot, incredibly well-acted, lovingly produced and highly enjoyable. An authentic depiction of the 1970s with its grim fashion, grimy exteriors and grubby politics, it is a slow-burning, meditative movie about espionage and betrayal, paranoia and isolation and both physical violence and mental torture.

The film starts with British field agent Jim Prideaux (a tense Mark Strong) on a mission for Control (the head of the secret service, played by John Hurt) in Budapest where he is shot and then abducted and tortured. Control and his deputy George Smiley (an outstanding Gary Oldman) are forced to resign over the affair. However, soon afterwards, Smiley is asked to come out of retirement to look into his former peers at the Circus (MI6), as it emerges from a British agent in Istanbul (a gritty Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr) that there is a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of the Circus who was responsible for Prideaux abduction. Together with the only person left at the secret service he can trust (a sober and tense Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam), Smiley investigates the four members of the head of the Circus: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his deputies Bill Haydon (a rather undignified Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (the Swedish actor David Dencik ), for any of these could be the mole.

One wag in a national newspaper said that the film was basically about sad, lonely men playing games with each other, which may well be the case…but what games! The film is not just a study into post war British espionage, but also continuous paranoia (all the actors are constantly looking back over their shoulders), duplicity and the need to fill lifeless lives with some meaning (usually through acts of aggression or petty nastiness). These people think they are sacrificing themselves for the greater good (Great Britain), but instead they come across as deluded maniacs with too much power. Indeed, by the end of the film, Mark Strong’s character realises what a waste his life and services to the Crown have been, which makes him exceptionally bitter and twisted.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that there are great set pieces such as classy pens, chess pieces, rulers used to kill owls and George Smiley’s unfathomably large glasses. These spectacles are a constant recurrence in the movie, and not just because Smiley is always wearing them (even when swimming). The camera loves to zoom in onto them and show us vague reflections suggesting everything and revealing nothing. Until the end of the film, that is, when we stare through the glasses into the sad eyes of George Smiley and the void at the heart of humanity – a void that stares back at us.

It is a film well worth watching again and again, and it will undoubtedly join the upper echelons of great movies, for it is on par with Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ or Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. Anyone who doesn’t like it probably thinks Star Wars is high art or that Led Zeppelin is Classical music…

Jomar de Vrind

When you have a sibling in the armed forces it isn’t easy getting the family together. With this in mind, it was with excitement that my parents and I anticipated my sister’s nine day visit home this September before a long posting abroad. We all thought it would be good if we spent as much of this time together as possible and, as part of the “what shall we do whilst Louise is home” conference that took place in my living room, I decided that a rare family cinema visit might be a good option in case an evening arose in which we wanted to be sociable but we didn’t want to actually speak to each other. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just so happened to be opening that week – a rare film that appealed to all four of us, joining the likes of Casino Royale, State of Play and, naturally, Chicken Run.

If you’re not currently bowled over by the exquisite film taste of the Eccles family I imagine you are bursting to know what the verdict was on this new adaptation of Le Carré’s acclaimed novel. Not great. And by not great I mean the following; it may well have been two of the most nerve shatteringly boring hours of my life and I sat through Open Water. A fearful voice inside of me is screaming “No! Lie! Tell them you loved it!” because in terms of critical reception I am aware that I am most definitely swimming against the tide on this one but no, damn it, I was bored and I’m not sorry. And in the month since I watched it, I’ve only become more convinced that is was boring.

So what made me so extraordinarily bored? It wasn’t the acting. The acting was fine, better than fine actually; the acting was of an extremely high calibre. If you ever wondered how good Gary Oldman would be at sitting in a dark room mostly silent but occasionally talking extremely quietly whilst obviously feeling somewhat troubled, I can assure you he is flawless. He has plenty of opportunity to show it too, since this makes up the majority of the film. Colin Firth was just sort of around, but good at being around. Tom Hardy and Benedict ‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch were the most interesting players, perhaps because their characters were the only ones bringing any life to the screen which I am sure was intentional – they were the young guns, the ones not yet ruined by the pressures of the job.

And here lies the problem. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is in the end a story of lifelessness. It is an interesting and emotive concept of course, the self-sacrificing and empty life of the secret agent: it is brilliant to take the character of the Spy and change it from the gadget-laden, smooth talking Casanova to perhaps a more realistic version of a loner, weighed down by responsibility, aged beyond their years. If you’re going to do this though, you’ve got to find the energy of the piece somewhere. You’ve got to find life in the lifelessness.

In the press for this movie there was much said about asking the cinema-goer to think their way through a movie. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘make me think! I enjoy thinking!’ And I do, I really do. Especially with a screen in front of me. I’m doing it right now, by choice. But really, you have to give me something. Give me a character I can associate with, give me a plot point, or at least, for the love of Oscar, give me more than one line of dialogue in a scene during the first hour of your awful, awful movie. The film is as complicated as it all-too-proudly boasts but it isn’t impossible to follow and strangely it is easy to guess the answer to the mystery half heartedly presented to you. Incredibly easy. Which means when the solution is revealed you feel even more robbed – ‘all that, for this?!’ were, I believe, my exact thoughts during what I would usually describe as the climax but will today refer to as the part that signalled I may soon have my life back.

The truth, I fear, is that this movie was never supposed to be enjoyed by anyone. I think it was designed from the outset to be admired and it is very hard to admire something when it is screaming at you that you must. Snobbery, I believe, is the word. In the end it is the average paying audience member who should be appeased. The Eccles family were not. “I wish I’d taken a book with me,” my father commented as we left, “although nothing by Le Carré, I’ve never really liked his novels.”

Andrew Eccles

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