An era of British spycraft and fiction beguiles on film.
Gary Oldman is an irresistible drawcard, but the dramatised le Carré territory is almost hallowed ground, consecrated by Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley in the 1979 and 1982 BBC TV productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley’s People.
Imagine my delighted surprise when Tomas Alfredson’s film not only lived up to my expectations, but actually surpassed them on some levels without at all jarring negatively against the novels or the masterful Guiness interpretation.
Oldman’s understated, lop-sided, genteel performance nevertheless hinted at the steel of a determined, tough minded man, and added a dimension to the character rather than varying the original literary figure to suit the shortcomings or appeal of the actor, in the way such things are routinely confected in the US (conspicuously badly, for example, in the Manhunter remake into Red Dragon, or Nikita into The Assassin).
While Hoyte van Hoytema’s visualisation of the era and locale were highly polished and evocative of a bygone era the way an emotively laden dream might be, they lacked the harshly-lit, grimy realism that gels with my own experiences of London in the mid to late 1970s, which was certainly evident in the BBC productions. Whether that is a valid point of contention is probably an entirely aesthetic consideration, not a reason to dismiss the craft.
In a similar vein, it becomes difficult to disentangle my own personal experience of the story from an examination of the film. Le Carré’s (real name David Cornwell) fiction was a seminal insight for me, explaining much about the stunningly drab disappointment that Britain turned out to be after having been raised on the continent in an awe of the isles as an almost mythical place of legend and larger than life people and places.
There was something in the novels that took for granted the British public school, Oxbridge mentality while also explaining it to someone like me, who was forced to come to terms with it a generation or two after le Carré’s protagonists. More to the point, the fictions explained the stolid despair of patriotic Englishmen so evident in their self-deprecating humour, the squalid and run-down appearance of almost all of London in the early 1970s (seen nowhere more accurately than in The Sweeney TV show of that era), and the sense of spiritual and intellectual dislocation that might have been the response to having lost empire and being faced with an apparently exclusive, absolute choice between a dreary Soviet communism and a brash, arrogant, soulless American materialism.
It was that choice which seemed to animated the post-war British civil service, generating the real spy scandals to emerge from a generation of born-to-empire but dispossessed Englishmen, and it was this choice that drove the vérité of le Carré’s narratives so potently.
Perhaps the film captured more evocatively the reasons why Britain did not decline into a rust-belt Soviet satellite: inherent in the stoic character of unglamorous men like Oldman’s Smiley was a tenacious, fierce intellect cultivated by the already mentioned education system. This intellect turned the privileged into multi-faceted men and women rather than merely commercially oriented professionals. That, coupled with a younger generation, exemplified by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam, who recognized rather than recoiled from the admirable qualities in their seniors, and sought to perpetuate rather than overturn such values, is what saved the day for Smiley in the fiction, and Britain in the making.
There was an apparently insignificant scene in which Peter Guillam swats ineffectively, frustratedly, at a large fly in a car. Smiley merely observes, and at the right moment, opens his window just enough to let the fly escape. A metaphor for his instinctively tactical grasp of the situation.
The skill of the actors assembled for this film was so conspicuously outstanding that it is difficult to fault even the bit players. I have the greatest admiration for Oldman, and believe he has missed too many Oscars already, but the preeminent performance for me was by Cumberbatch. Coming from the popular but somewhat campy, pantoesque Sherlock, his portrayal as the prodigal Guillam was nothing less than brilliantly observed and executed. While I thought of Michael Jayston’s television portrayal of Peter Guillam as satisfyingly hard-edged and cynical, in the Edward Woodward/Callan mould, Cumberbatch’s delivery turns out to be the more believable one for its unromanticized, authentic reflection of the British approach to the problems of empire and the men it turns to in order to solve them, even after the empire was gone.
An absolute delight in the visualization was the scene in which Santa-as-Lenin led a rousing chorus of the Soviet anthem at a drab, drunken office party, where Smiley discovers his wife’s indiscretion with Bill Haydon, the man shown at the same party as probably being the lover of Jim Prideaux, who was sent to be shot behind enemy lines in a tragedy of duplicity, and the same setting in which the revellers enthusiastically embrace a Sammy Davis Jr number about the ‘second best secret agent in the world’, as if in homage to their nemesis, Karla.
David Cornwell has a brief cameo appearance at that party as a distinguished looking gentleman in grey suit and white hair, who stands to sing the Soviet anthem immediately after Santa, wearing a Lenin mask, takes the stage and invites all guests to join the chorus.
Equally impressive was the interwoven sub-narrative about the betrayal of patriots by the very bureaucracies they sought to protect and represent, poignantly reflected in Guillam’s eviction of his lover, Connie Sachs’s recognition of the coming crisis, and Smiley’s sardonic reminder to Lacon, in a conversation designed to recruit Smiley back to clean up the emerging catastrophe, that Lacon had fired him in the first place, hinting that perhaps the catastrophe might have been heightened by that sacking.
In some senses this film was doomed to fail in an American market, where its only hope would have been an extended length and avalanche of dialogue to carefully explain all the nuance and flavour of this thoroughly British tale. So perfectly reflecting le Carre’s disdain for all things America. Yet, it seems likely that even a new generation of Europeans will have little of the historical knowledge that might heighten an appreciation of the sincere and lethal contest, fought between patriots, across seemingly innocuous urban European battlefields, in those hostile years of the later 1960s and the 1970s. But they might recognize the sincerity of the protagonists, real and fictional, in the enthralling, evocative performances delivered by the cast.
As a collaboration of fine actors, a skillful director and cinematographer, and a production team overall that seems to be second to none, this really is one of those rare films that may be remembered, as opposed to just labelled, a classic in years to come, and as a reflection on the state of the art, rather than just state of the art flim-flam.
There’s an insightful backgrounder to the verité of the novel and film from the BBC, not that I share all its conclusions.
Studio Canal/Working Title Films, 2011, 127 minutes. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Robyn Slovo. Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré. Music by Alberto Iglesias.
With Gary Oldman as George Smiley, John Hurt as Control, Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland, David Dencik as Toby Esterhase, Stephen Graham as Jerry Westerby, Simon McBurney as Oliver Lacon, Toby Jones as Percy Alleline, Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, Michael Sarne as Karla.
See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.