Are the Critics Wrong About Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?
I finally got to see Tomas Alfredson’s new film adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last night. The film has been lavishly praised by critics for its acting, writing, direction and evocation of a 1970s British setting. Unfortunately, I found the film to be disappointing in all these regards. I’ve written on both Le Carre’s excellent novel and the superlative 1979 BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before and I think its one of the greatest pieces of spy fiction. Alfredson’s film sticks to the plot of the source novel fairly closely: there is a mole in a senior position at the British Secret Service (the Circus) passing highly classified information to the Soviets. A former British spy George Smiley is called upon by a high ranking civil servant to investigate and expose the mole. Smiley had been sacked from the Circus in the aftermath of an ill-fated British mission in Eastern Europe, so he must conduct his investigation from outside the Circus. Aided by his protege Peter Guillam, he gradually puts his case together interviewing ex-agents, most of whom have also been sacked as a result of a power struggle within the Circus. That’s the deceptively simple plot: there are a myriad of sub-plots and extensive back-story which all finally merge to form a remarkably complex narrative. The former head of the Circus, known only as Control, sent the agent Jim Prideaux on the ill-fated Eastern European mission in an effort to expose the mole. Control is sacked and dies after Prideaux is shot and captured on the mission. Smiley finds himself working through Control’s original investigation. The title is derived from a nursery rhyme which forms the codenames Control has given to the suspects who might be the mole; Tinker (Percy Alleline), Tailor (Bill Haydon), Soldier (Roy Bland), Poor Man (Toby Esterhase).
Alfredson’s new adaptation faces two big hurdles to overcome in adapting this story to the big screen; firstly, to prove the story is worth telling again after the novel has already been adapted for television and radio, and secondly, to successfully compress a long, detailed and complex story into a two-hour film. He succeeds at the first task but fails at the latter. The film moves at a breakneck pace, characters and scenes from the original narrative are jettisoned, and the complexity of the story is often rendered incoherent. Another problem is the plausibility of the film; Le Carre’s spy novels are noted for their realism, and Tinker Tailor was based on the Cambridge spy ring and more specifically the traitor Kim Philby. The film does not portray espionage with any sense of accuracy — in one embarrassing scene a British spy can clearly see through his hotel window into the apartment block across the way (curtains fully open) where a Russian spy is having sex with his mistress and his thugs are guarding the room outside. When the spy’s unfortunate wife walks in and catches them in bed together, she is savagely beaten by the husband. All of this takes place in plain sight for the British spy to see, and we are supposed to believe the Russian spy would be so incompetent to allow himself to be exposed like that! One unfortunate aspect to this production is the focus on violence, we see the grisly aftermath of several torture murders which are not necessary to the story and seem very unlikely. Alfredson previously directed the horror film Let the Right One In and the influence shows not only in the violence. The tone of the film comes across as somewhere between gothic horror and graphic novel, which to my mind undermines the 1970s setting of the story. In fact, the setting consistently comes across as more like 1940s wartime Britain. Much of the wit and the sparkling dialogue of the novel is absent here, too often replaced with obscenities aimed at getting cheap laughs. As a consequence, a lot of the characterisation seems weak with several performances misjudged. Benedict Cumberbatch does not get the tone right for playing Peter Guillam. The character should have an inner anger and intensity mixed with his fierce loyalty to Smiley and Cumberbatch doesn’t quite pull it off (Guillam is a homosexual in the film for no apparent reason whereas in the book he is a womaniser). It’s also hard to imagine that a senior spy would get so unnerved so easily. Kathy Burke comes across merely as coarse and uncouth as Connie Sachs. Toby Jones seems to drop in and out of a Scottish accent as Percy Alleline. The character of Jerry Westerby is merged with the Sam Collins character of the novel and played by the Liverpool born actor Stephen Graham. Graham is completely miscast and plays Westerby as a cheeky scouser and is not at all convincing as an intelligence agent. In fact most of the cast are unconvincing because they seem to be trying too hard to act and appear terrified in the suspense scenes when they should be trying to keep calm! Gary Oldman is good enough as George Smiley, but again the film is moving so quickly we never get a chance to get to know the character, and he comes across as quite faceless. He even confesses he can’t remember what his nemesis in Soviet Intelligence looks like after meeting him years ago. Hardly inspiring! Also, the plot has been so truncated by the screenwriters we get no sense of Smiley doing much to unmask the mole, rather it just lumbers on from one scene to the next.
The film does have its qualities, and it would be unfair to say that its a complete failure. You could feel the tension in the cinema as the film drew to a climax with the unmasking of the mole. Also, I went with a couple of friends who knew nothing of the story, having neither read the book or seen the BBC production and they seemed to be gripped. So, ending on a postive note at least the film has served to bring this classic story to a new audience. But you would be better served by reading the novel or watching the 1979 television production with Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley than watching this highly overrated version.