Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Based on the book by John le Carré
Starring: Mark Strong, John Hurt, Zoltán Mucsi, Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, Peter O'Connor, Roger Lloyd Pack, William Haddock, Tomasz Kowalski, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Laura Carmichael, Rupert Procter, and Christian McKay
Release Date: January 6th, 2012
Rating: ★★
To Buy

A failed mission in Budapest carried out by British Intelligence quickly grows into an international incident and throws the Circus into chaos. The spy on the ground, Jim Prideaux, is dead, Control is ousted, as is his right-hand man, George Smiley. The new cabal that takes over the Circus, Alleline, Haydon, Bland, and Esterhase, are now running the entire intelligence operation based on "Witchcraft." This magic is an operation that started under Control, which he didn't approve of, thinking that relying too much on one Russian source, no matter how good the material, was dangerous business. But a year after Budapest Control is dead and Smiley is in retirement. Soon new rumors of a mole within the Circus has Smiley coming out of retirement to investigate his former colleagues. With the help of an agent Smiley recruited and trained still loyal to him within the agency, Peter Guillam, and a retired Special Branch Officer, Mendel, the investigation begins. Smiley talks to other ousted agents while Guillam carefully removes files from the Circus itself relevant to their inquires. Soon Ricki Tarr, the agent whose call restarted this investigation which was started by Control himself appears on the scene and tells Smiley about his mission in Istanbul that lead to his certainty of the mole. But spies hold their secrets close and it turns out that even the facts of the Budapest mission are omitting a key piece of evidence; Jim Prideaux is alive. Can Smiley unravel this web of deceit and double agents? Only time will tell.

Taking a labyrinthine book and trimming it down to a film that is only two hours means certain liberties are going to be taken. Instead of slow reveals and doubling back on incidents that we saw before but this time from a different angle this is straight forward linear storytelling at it's simplest. The mission in "Budapest" which in the book we don't learn about until the very end opens up the film and from that moment on I just knew it was going to be drastically different. I had hoped for the better because I didn't love the book, but that hope was sadly in vain. What occasionally bogs down the source material is that there is such depth, occasionally exquisite writing that, taken as a whole, is severely overwritten. Here they went too far in the other direction making everything shallow. There's one scene the film keeps going back to, a Christmas party before everything went wrong. Again and again we return to this shiny happy party, to this time when everyone seemed content. Yet if this was meant to show the subterfuge and secret currents beneath the surface and between the characters it fails miserably. Everything is laid out simply and cleanly making it appear that all lack of knowledge on the part of the spies is based solely on willful ignorance. But then again, a movie which casts Colin Firth as the mole is obviously lacking subtlety. Seriously. It was SO OBVIOUS to me just from the cast list.

Yet what I found oddest about this adaptation was that it was no longer Smiley's story. The book is all about him and his investigation, and yes, while watching Gary Oldman sit in a room reading papers by himself might not have been a movie that would garner box office gold, I still think that this change diminishes Smiley. Which is interesting, because in the book he's constantly diminished by his cheating wife, whereas here she's barely mentioned... so I guess you could say they accomplished the diminishment in a different way? But I have a feeling that wasn't their intent. They filled the screen with so many well regarded stars that they all had to have their screen time and therefore Smiley had to fall by the wayside. And while I might have initially thought this was a bad idea, after seeing Gary Oldman's performance... the less of Smiley the better. Seriously, just trust me on this, he was like an embalmed corpse, and in fact, an embalmed corpse would have had more range and facial expressions than Oldman did in this film. I literally was thinking how even a cardboard cut out would have made a more convincing agent. There's blending into the scenery to be the perfect spy, then there's becoming so much a part of the scenery that you have omitted yourself from the narrative. If you doubt anything I've said here, just watch the scene where Smiley recounts his first meeting with Karla, wherein Karla is played by a chair in some weird student acting flashback and the chair gives a better performance. 

The only benefit to Smiley being sidelined is that he needed a sidekick more than ever and in stepped Peter Guillam, aka Benedict Cumberbatch. Guillam's role is significantly beefed up, which I very much like, because, come on, it's Benedict! But it's also significantly changed. In the book he's a playboy who's in deep with a flautist who he thinks may or may not be playing him with her own husband... he's attractive and blond and bright eyed and bushy tailed, and Benedict could have just as easily played him as originally written as he played him as rewritten. Here Guillam is meek, disheveled, and a closet homosexual. I don't take any issue with him being rewritten as homosexual, his character was already quite fluid in the book, what I take issue with is I feel like this rewrite was done as an apology for the lack of sensitivity in handling gay and bisexual characters in the book. While they proliferate on the pages of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy they are also constantly getting shade thrown at them. If there's a hint of anything not straight about them then it is commented on in a very disparaging way and their loyalties are questioned. To fix this issue all they would have had to do is keep the characters as they are but not disparage them. It seems like a concession that was thrown in for the benefit of modern audiences without actually thinking it through. It's like how I felt when watching the Gilmore Girls revival. I had spent the last year watching an episode a day a had come to realize that the show was extremely homophobic, so how did they fix that? They attempted to throw a gay parade and out one of the characters... in other words, just a token gesture. So not cool.

Though the biggest WTF moment in the entire movie is that by having Ricki Tarr show up far later in the story I'm mystified as to how Lacon got Smiley to investigate anything. In the book the only reason why Smiley agrees to go back in, to investigate the Circus, is because Tarr's story is so convincing. It also provides the audience with an emotional connection. Tarr fell in love on the job and because of the mole his love was killed. See, an emotional investment for the audience. Here by throwing Tarr's story in almost half-way through the movie, why should we even care about it? He's just corroborating evidence he'd already given over the phone. Did they think, this is when the audience will get bored, throw in a love story... uh, please don't insult our intelligence! But time and time again I come back to the fact that just Lacon whispering a few words in Smiley's ear makes him give up all his beliefs and go back into the fray. This once again is a diminishment. He is easily swayed, he can just give up his daily swims in the river and move into a crappy hotel that looks like it was imported from the Eastern Block and get on with the next chapter of his life. I mean, seriously!?! Come on! Your protagonist doesnt' have sufficient motive for their actions and therefore, once again, I see that this movie is nothing more than surface. He can't just investigate because he's told to, he must have a reason. He must have motive. He must be invested in the outcome because otherwise the audience will be likewise disengaged.

There is only one thing I actually liked about this movie. So let's move beyond the trite chess pieces with the potential spies pictures on them and Control's den of files that were somehow not confiscated when he left, let's go to the small school where Prideaux is in hiding, teaching French. There's a reason the book begins and ends with the school and with Prideaux's father/son relationship to one of his students, Bill Roach, because they are the heart of the story. Roach is rather a pudgy kid with big glasses. There's one line that Prideaux delivers to Roach about the fact that when Roach puts on his glasses there's nothing he can't see. This is a call back to a scene wherein Smiley got new thick glasses. This sets up a lovely parallel between Roach and Smiley that I didn't really think about when reading the book. The two of them are both really Prideaux's benevolent guardians. Smiley wants to protect Prideaux while getting to the bottom of the case and makes every effort to kept up the pretense of his death. Whereas Roach is always looking out for Prideaux. Roach has got his back and will protect him with the faithfulness of the converted. This one line makes you see so many connections and call backs and possibilities that I just wonder what would have happened had the filmmakers bothered to imbue the rest of their story with this depth. This one line shows so much depth, and yet for the most part we're just being show a shiny picture of a past party. I know which one I'd rather have, but perhaps there are those out there who can settle for a quick snapshot in time that captures and hides nothing.


Have you seen the Alec Guinness miniseries? I loved it - far more than the books, and almost infinitely more than the film (the only thing about the film I enjoyed was its aesthetic). Guinness makes Smiley into a figure of quiet, towering tragedy and thwarted compassion.

I really want to watch the Alex Guinness miniseries now, from what you and others have told me. Plus it covers the other two books in the Karla trilogy so I won't have to read them! Plus it's Guinness, he's a genius.

The entire time I was reading the book I could see Guinness as Smiley, but never Oldman, though IF they did a new new version, I'd like to see them give Tom Hollander a try. Something about Carre's description and Tom's acting ability I think would combined wonderfully.

I also wonder what would happen if they tried to update it, like they did with The Night Manager... so many options!

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