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Are the Critics Wrong About Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?

September 30, 2011

Gary Oldman as George Smiley

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.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Trevor Ellis permalink
    October 8, 2011 5:40 pm

    Why change Smiley’s address from Bywater Street?

    • October 8, 2011 6:51 pm

      Trevor,

      I didn’t notice the address change. I was more perplexed as to what’s the name of the park where Smiley went swimming periodically.

      Steve

      • Frank permalink
        September 12, 2015 3:52 pm

        Hi Steve,

        I suspect that Smiley went swimming in the Serpentine Lido in The Hyde Parks. The habit of ‘taking the waters’ goes back to Victorian times and the bracing impact of freezing water thought to be good for the system.

        It was still common to see sights like this in the 70’s, less so now.

        Having read the book and viewed the TV series and now this film, I have to say I’m surprised by your review. The film was very good and very accurate to the book.

        Yes, the non-Smiley characters were slightly more emotional than they would have been in real life, but they would be. In a film where the central character, Smiley, is totally impassive how else can any sense of a tense situation be conveyed, unless someone, anyone, does actually act tensely?

        I would also remind you that the author, John le Carré, was always available by phone to the director and was often on set as well and it seems he thought they made a good job of it.

        Still, always interesting to read different opinions.

      • September 12, 2015 5:35 pm

        Frank,

        Thanks for the info on the Serpentine Lido. It made for one of the most memorable images in the film, although personally I couldn’t swim anywhere that was named serpentine.

        TTSS is a classic story and how you feel about novel, film or TV adaptation may depend on which you came across first. For me it was the TV version which will always the remain the classic telling (and a classic of British television in its own right). You raise some good points in the films defence, and for what its worth almost everyone I’ve talked to who saw and loved the TV version hated the movie, whereas people who went into the movie without knowing much about the story were really impressed. However, as you came to the film last there are naturally exceptions. I haven’t rewatched the film so I don’t know if it could win me over. I was surprised to learn that several moments I disliked in the film were actually from the book but had not appeared in 1979 version.

        But every time I sound like I’m open to changing my mind I remind myself of moments in the film I really didn’t like, such as Prideaux knocking out the burning bird trapped in the chimney and then breaking its neck in front of the terrified children. I just preferred the more subtle relationship between Prideaux and Jumbo in the miniseries.

    • Frank permalink
      September 12, 2015 7:43 pm

      Steve,

      The incident of the burning bird (a barn owl) appears very early in the book and is based on a real life incident in John le Carré’s life, except that it happened to his wife, Ann, not he.

      Now, that doesn’t mean that it has to be in the film, but it does serve to show that there is more to Prideaux than being some unlucky harmless civil servant who came unstuck in Budapest. Indeed, it hints, as in real life, that it wasn’t only the scalphunters who were trained in the ‘dark arts’. Without that scene, the only clue the viewer would get that Prideaux was ‘different’ would be when he knew Jumbo was sneaking up the side of his caravan. Bit subtle, when you consider the final scene. Even so, I can see why many people wouldn’t like that scene.

      The BBC at the time, post I. Claudius, didn’t hold back. So I suspect that scene was dropped from the TV version due to the sensibilities of Alec Guinness, who I know would have found it ‘gratuitous’.

      Incidentally, the portrayal of Connie Sachs was pretty true to life in the 60’s and 70’s. The clue was the mention of the War. It left many women like that, if they didn’t leave as soon as it was over. Unseen casualty of war – saw too many young men sent out who never came back.

      By 2011, I would have thought the back projection for the in car scenes and the landing aircraft would have been far better. However, I am glad that in 2011 the director resisted the temptation to speed things up to suit a modern audience and let the pace move as it should.

      As you may gather, I quite liked the film. 🙂

      Frank

      • September 12, 2015 10:06 pm

        I can’t remember the burning bird scene in the book, but after watching the film I did flick through the book again and was surprised to find the scene which specifies that Prideaux knew Haydon was the mole and warned him before setting off on the Checko mission. This was one of the scenes which annoyed me in the film because I thought it was incoherent in comparison to the TV series. So, while I still don’t like the film I’m starting to think it was a more loyal adaptation.

        I can’t remember the in car back projection, but the airstrip scene was pretty bad. I did love the King Charles Cavalier who lived at Poliakoff’s house.

        I Claudius was another classic. Also rumoured to be getting the cinematic treatment. I’ve reviewed BBC dramas The Shadow of the Tower and The Devil’s Crown on this blog. I’d be interested to hear your take if you’ve seen them.

  2. aidan condon permalink
    October 18, 2011 12:21 am

    While not having read the novel I was wondering if an argument could be made that Smiley was the mole? Obviously we all left the cinema believing it was Haydon but I believe a second narrative existed in which Karla achieved his ultimate goal of having his man Smiley at the top of the Circus.

    Does anyone else see that as a possibility?

    Aidan

    • October 18, 2011 9:04 am

      Aidan,

      Thanks for commenting. I believe Le Carre did write an early draft where the narrative is one long conversation between a young spy and an older retired spy, in which it is slowly revealed that the older spy is the mole. I’m not sure though, I’ll have to check. However, I don’t think Le Carre ever planned for Smiley to be the mole as he rewrote some of Smiley’s back-story for this novel to make him younger than he was in the previous novels as he wanted to write more Smiley novels where the aging spy is pitted against Karla. I also think that although Smiley’s often despairs about the West’s failure to hold to its values he would never work for the Soviet Union as the regime is too abhorrent to him.

      Steve

      • Nader Family permalink
        May 18, 2013 1:08 pm

        He also had to be younger and still married to Ann in order to allow for the love affair between her and Haydon. She is not supposedly much younger than George Smiley himself.
        They were divorced in a previous novel, A Call for the Dead I think.
        Alleline could be a second mole that lurks. Irena mentions one mole, but there is no reason that there was a more carefully coached one, like the actual historical spy gang, who didn’t know about each other until very late.
        Alleline is the suspect as he is not surprised, like Toby and Roy when they are called into action the night of the shooting of Prideaux. Sir Percy walks in with smile on his face as if he can’t cover up his knowledge that the “setup” has worked out and Control has taken the bait. Why would he not be surprised if he didn’t know.
        Its only him and Haydon who act as if they know Jim was supposed to have been in Checko. Haydon acts surprised for Jim being shot, but not that he was there in the first place, which he had manipulated to occur. But Sir Percy also is not questioning why was Jim in Checko. He must then have known, and was not smart enough not to react as if he had not expected Prideaux to have been in Checko.
        George is certainly another possibility of being a very cool mole who acts perfectly, waiting for Haydon to be sacrificed for him to get to the top at the Circus.

      • May 18, 2013 3:55 pm

        Nader Family,

        Thanks for commenting. There is only one mole in the novel as Haydon was specifically based on Kim Philby. Although the existence of the Cambridge Spy ring proves that British intelligence was riddled with traitors during this period, the other suspects in the novel are just unwittingly passing on secrets to the Soviets and are not strictly speaking moles.

        Best wishes,
        Steven

  3. December 22, 2011 6:18 pm

    Steve:

    I saw the film a few days ago and agree with your review. I am naturally reluctant to go see remakes on films, especially ones that I LIKE. When I do, I am almost always disappointed. That was the case on TTSS. I didn’t walk out, BUT….

    Am currently fighting the urge to go see Fincher’s, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I really really liked the original trilogy and will likely be disappointed in the U.S. version(s). Maybe, I will hang until it goes to DVD.

    Happy Holidays to your and yours from Los Angeles!

    Steve Hodel

    • December 22, 2011 7:55 pm

      Steve:

      Thanks for commenting. TTSS has just been nominated for a whole bunch of awards this side of the pond, so I guess were still in the minority of dissenters! I’m wary of Fincher’s remake of GWTDT. It could be good, but like you said the original films were very strong and why does the story need to be told again so soon?

      Happy holidays and see you in the new year!

      Steve Powell

  4. Stuart Fraser permalink
    April 20, 2016 10:02 pm

    As a long time Le Carre (and esp Smiley) fan I have to say I really liked the film. Like all films from book the text can be viewed as a separate entity. For that mater so must Smiley, the one from the two early novels and the brief appearance in the spy who came in from the cold is not the same smiley that we see in TTSS or in the honourable schoolboy for that mater. Le Carre developed the characters over a number of books, and yes the film is not true to the book but that is not the point, each incarnation needs to be true it is for a different audience and by a different writer. (who just happens to be the director) just like the difference between Steven King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and the Frank Darabont film. Let’s celebrate and enjoy difference, it works for pizza, curry and char sui pork.

    • April 21, 2016 8:32 pm

      The film is like marmite, I’ve met lots of people who love it or hate it. I probably can’t change my opinion, but I appreciate how much other people like it and how the story was introduced to a whole new audience.

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