I have to confess something – and not even under duress: I am not a big fan of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I’ve got a copy of the novel at home, signed by the man himself (or was it David Cornwell? I forget…), since as a student I was part of a committee that invited him to do a reading at our department (and thereby hangs a tale for a different occasion). I’ve read the book twice and I’ve seen the BBC miniseries from the ’70s the same number of times – but while I enjoy the minutiae of Le Carré’s construct, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has always struck me as overly internalised, to such an extent that to me it came across as lacking urgency. There are definitely things about it – both novel and miniseries – that I liked, even a lot, first and foremost Alec Guinness’ George Smiley, but at least as much Ian Richardson’s Bill Haydon, but by and large I’ve found the whole thing too low-key an affair – and it takes a lot for me to find something too low-key and internalised.
The recent film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works a lot better for me – though ironically the film probably wouldn’t have had the same effect on me if I hadn’t recently re-read and re-watched the novel and series. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation is at least as good as the BBC effort in terms of its cast; there is no one in the film who isn’t cast and acted very well. It is also one of the most accomplished films of the last ten years in terms of production design, visualising the late days of the Cold War to perfection – and making the drab, dreary MI-6 of the time barely more appealing than its Russian counterpart, at least in immediately sensual terms.
Alfredson’s film – and this will show me for the heretic that I am – is much better at bringing out the themes of betrayal and the human costs of living a life of secrecy, subterfuge and lies than the BBC miniseries, without losing the TV version’s subtlety. The film version transports its themes primarily through its acting and mis-en-scene, not through overly literal speeches or dialogues. I would go so far as to say it improves the book, making it more effective without sacrificing its strengths.
Where the film steps wrong, at least in my opinion, is in how damn elliptic it is. It has trimmed any fat off the story, but in doing so it has cut very close to the bone. I like elliptic storytelling when done effectively, in fact I very much prefer it to storytelling that has multiple redundancies built in at every turn, something that tells the audience that it is certain not to overestimate their intelligence. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes it further than is necessary or indeed helpful, I think: the plot comes across as complicated to the point of being obscure for the first hour or so, and only because Alfredson wants his audience to work in order to catch up. That’s fair, but the problem is that it tends to make the audience think that the plot is where it’s at, that you need to have an investigator’s – or a George Smiley’s – mind to understand what this is all about. This, however, is an unfortunate distraction: Le Carré’s story is strongest when it is about its characters, and the film version doubly so. The plot should tell us about the characters, not the other way around – and the more complicated the goings-on seem, the easier it is to miss what is important and interesting about Tinker…: how the world these characters inhabit and the betrayals, both small and large, they’re required to commit in the line of duty corrode their ability to be human. The film’s structure makes it seem like a whodunnit, when the solution is finally banal and rather simple, as well as practically dictated by the casting.
This is one of the very, very few films that may in fact improve with a few minutes of audience guidance. Spell one or two things out for us, George, will you? And in return we can concentrate on you, and on Bill Haydon, and on Ricki Tarr, Peter Guillam, and on poor, poor Irina. The whodunnit can take care of itself.